A miserable experience recording an album doesn’t always equal a miserable album. So often the opposite happens: Big Star, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and Fleetwood Mac all made brilliant albums under internal or external stress. So the early clues into the Strokes’ fourth album, their first in five years, weren’t so bad. Sure, it had been a while, and Casablancas was recording in a separate studio, and he told any reporter he spoke with that the band was touring for the money alone. But some good things happen when band members hate each other. Listening to Angles now, it seems like hate would have been good, actually. Instead the band was working under much worse feelings: boredom, apathy, alienation. You can hear bits of what you loved about the Strokes in many songs, and some promising new ideas in others. Overall, though, Angles is an uneven album. The only thing that connects the separate pieces is the palpable apathy..
But guitarist Nick Valensi describes that feeling even better in a recent Pitchfork interview:
I won’t do the next album we make like this. No way. It was awful– just awful. Working in a fractured way, not having a singer there. I’d show up certain days and do guitar takes by myself, just me and the engineer. Some of the third album was done that way, but at least we were on the same page about what the arrangements and parts were. Seventy-five percent of this album felt like it was done together and the rest of it was left hanging, like some of us were picking up the scraps and trying to finish a puzzle together.
Unfortunately that 25% weighs the album down considerably. You can just watch their SNL performances and compare Strokes in 2001 to 2011 to see the subtle but significant differences that color Angles. That effortless cool and uncaring has crossed over into genuine boredom. You can tell they’ve grown apart, not just as friends or a band, but as musicians. They all contributed to the songwriting on Angles, but the mix of these different voices and styles doesn’t create variety, it creates disconnection. There are some very good moments on each song, but none of those moments add up to few great songs; the songs don’t connect to an album, and the songs don’t present any larger vision, and there’s no build-up or tension to give the record shape.
“Machu Picchu” sets up the album’s auspicious and dubious start. There are great things here: the upbeat and slight reggae influence, the rhythmic bridge, the catchy lead guitar hook. But already you can hear the break between the instruments and Casablancas’ voice, which hangs above the song, as it does on most of Angles. “Under Cover of Darkness” and “Two Kinds Of Happiness” also have lots of life in them, and shows the one thread you can follow from track to track: strong 70s/80s pop influences, from the Cars to Tom Petty (which you can hear in the latter especially) and Men At Work, Police, Thin Lizzy, and Steely Dan(!). “You’re So Right” creeps in a darker direction for the band (which Casablancas explored in his solo album), but it feels incomplete, as does “Taken For A Fool.” “Taken For A Fool” reads as if it’s about feeling disconnected (the line about his weekend being Monday/Tuesday seems like it’s about how he’s out of sync with others, and once again Casablancas sounds as if he’s hovering about the song, never engaging with it, as if the parts weren’t only recorded in different spaces, but mixed differently as well.
If The Strokes have a “Reelin’ In The Years” (and every band needs one), it’s “Gratisfaction,” and it’s one of the most fun tracks on the album. What I like about “Gratisfaction” is that it also sounds like a band working together, enjoying each other’s energy, especially when all of their voices show up on the chorus. Elsewhere the band introduces more creative ideas and influences that feel aimless after a bit. The light Brazilian guitar in “Call Me Back” is a romantic contrast to tracks like “You’re So Right” and “Gratisfaction;” it sounds a bit like drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s adorable Little Joy project. The band invented a boiling psychedelic groove for “Metabolism” that should have set this song up for bigger things instead of Casablancas’ yawning vocals (even his ending shout sounds like a stifled yawn.
Casablancas singing “What’s the point?” in ambling closer “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight,” is appropriate — the album and the band lack purpose. That list of good bands that’s you sort of hear in Angles? You could add The Strokes to it. Angles is the band you loved, in ghost form. The Strokes’ many side projects prove that the band clearly love writing and playing music. They just don’t enjoy writing and playing with each other, and unless they can undergo a Some Kind Of Monster-type group therapy that gets them in the same room again, all these ideas might be better explored by those side projects. What’s the point in keeping the Strokes going? In the same Pitchfork interview Casablancas ends by saying “The best thing we can do right now is put out another [album] really quick.” It’s only the second best thing they can do.
Angles is out 3/18.