Premature Evaluation: The Strokes Comedown Machine
At SXSW, they give you all these bracelets everywhere you go — indicating you’ve got clearance to enter different venues or VIP sections or whatever — and you can’t really take any of them off till the festival is over, so that by Saturday afternoon, everyone there has a half-sleeve of neon ribbons running up one arm from palm heel to elbow. They’re the same disposable ID tags given to you upon entering any club anywhere, but seeing them stacked like that, on every arm in Austin, reminded me of when I once, way back, let such bracelets accumulate on my own wrist, intentionally — not removing them for weeks, at the risk of getting a rash — because I had seen a photograph of Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas rocking that look, and I thought it was cool as hell. It was like the guy never slept, never stayed in, just spent every night in bars where bands were playing, too busy to bother with any preparation beyond putting on a pair of sunglasses and a leather jacket. Dead cool. Dead fucking cool. So anyway, I was hanging out in the hotel room with Amrit, looking at our bracelets and telling him this very anecdote, and he responded, “Julian Casablancas has a way of making things look cool.”
That’s kind of always been the thing about the Strokes, right? I’m of the belief that, more than any other single entity, that band is responsible for what has become known as “hipster” fashion. I don’t mean to get all Grandpa Simpson up in here (“…so I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time…”), but before the Strokes came along, kids in bands — and kids who listened to bands — just wore, like, bowling shirts, or backwards baseball caps, or old T-shirts with cracked prints that said “St. Joseph’s Track & Field,” or something. After the Strokes, it was all skinny jeans and messy long hair and sharp blazers and $5 Wayfarers knockoffs and beat-up German army jackets. I know correlation doesn’t imply causation, but follow me here: On January 22, 2001, sneaker company Converse declared bankruptcy. Exactly one week later, the Strokes released their debut EP, The Modern Age, in the UK — followed, that same year, by a bidding war and a media frenzy and a debut album. Almost exactly one year later, the Strokes were credited by Entertainment Weekly with reintroducing Converse Chuck Taylors into the rock ‘n’ roll wardrobe. On July 9, 2003, Nike bought out Converse for $305 million, three months before the release of the Strokes’ sophomore album, Room On Fire. And last week, at SXSW, Converse were one of the most prominent and extravagant sponsors of the festival, reinforcing their now-dominant brand to hipster types and tastemaker types and musician types from around the world. You, Stereogum reader? You don’t know a single person under the age of 40 who doesn’t own a pair of Chucks. And you may not think the Strokes had anything to do with that, but if you were to make that argument, I’d argue that you’re wrong.
I’d further argue that the Strokes’ net contributions to fashion have far exceeded their net contributions to music, but more importantly, I’d argue that the “thing” about the Strokes is a good deal bigger than the actual music produced by the band. Which is fine, of course, except that when we’re talking about that music, it can be difficult to do so without comparing it to that “thing.” It’s always been like that. Even before their debut album, Is This It, was released, there were constant and heated arguments about the band, due to the fact that they had received a mammoth five-album deal from RCA, who allegedly beat out “every major label in the States and a handful of independents” in their bid to sign the band. (Cynics were sure the contract had at least something to do with the band’s well-connected parents — specifically Casablancas’s father, who founded Elite Modeling Agency, and guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.’s father, a songwriter responsible for numerous top-10 hits). The North American release of that album was delayed — from September 25, 2001 to October 11, 2001 — so its ninth track, “New York City Cops” (…”they ain’t too smart”), could be swapped out for another, “When It Started,” in the wake of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. Even so, the hotly tipped debut album from the NYC band became a soundtrack and touchstone for many after 9/11; it was very much the sound of the city that fall, and the city was both devastated and united in ways that instilled deep meaning in such connections. To anyone who was there around the time of its release, Is This It could not possibly have been heard without at least some of this baggage — the hype, the controversy, the raw, overwhelming emotions — informing the experience.
So what exactly do we talk about when we talk about the Strokes? Comedown Machine is the band’s fifth album, the album that finally closes the books on the legendarily insane RCA contract that gave birth to so many haters a dozen years back. (Coincidentally or not, an RCA logo is the most prominent image on the album’s cover: an old-fashioned tape-reel box drawn up to appear as if it contains the Comedown Machine masters.) With that agreement settled, the band’s members are free to go their separate ways — something that seems like a real possibility right now. When the Strokes did press for their fourth album, 2011’s largely unloved Angles, it appeared there were rifts and communication breakdowns inside the band, according to several individual Strokes via numerous interviews. And the relationship status of the band-unit today is something of a mystery, as there’s a media blackout this time around. (There are also no plans to tour.)
That silence has the potential to create its own narrative, but it’s possible the Strokes are merely trying to release an album that can be judged solely on its artistic merits, rather than yet another where the “thing” about the Strokes is louder than the music. Even if that is the goal, though, it’s probably an unachievable one. That’s not because Comedown Machine isn’t a good album — it’s a really good album, actually — it’s because the “thing” about the Strokes is also a large part of what made us care about them. Even if you could somehow remove the post-9/11 associations from our collective appreciation of Is This It, the Strokes through 2003 were more than just a rock band; they were a gang, a clique: smart, artsy, tough single guys hanging out in East Village bars at 3 a.m. on a weeknight, drinking, smoking, roaming in a pack, an unimpeachable vision of cool. As Jay McInerney put it, in a wonderful and essential New York Magazine feature, in their early days, “the Strokes presented themselves as an enviable social unit, real friends just out of their teens, living the dream of adulthood postponed.” By the time they got together to record First Impressions Of Earth in 2005, though, they were settling down: pairing off, sobering up, having kids, leaving New York City. They grew up, cleaned up, made an album with the mainstream-minded ambitions implied by that record contract … and it was an ungainly mess. (And I actually like it!) Then the band went on hiatus, Casablancas moved to L.A., a few solo albums and/or side projects emerged, largely without ceremony. As mentioned above, when they reunited in 2010 to record Angles, relations were strained, and once it was released, no band member seemed particularly enthusiastic about the album (which was totally adequate if inessential).
It becomes difficult, then, to determine the essence (to say nothing of the essentialness) of Comedown Machine, especially when the band releasing it is publicly refusing to comment on the thing. In Monday’s Comment Party, reader Tim Martinez wrote of Comedown Machine, “After a few listens, I legitimately think this could be their third best album.” When I read that, at first, I laughed: Talk about damning with faint praise! The Strokes’ third and fourth albums have their champions, but even the personnel involved in the making of those albums would admit they are, at best, fundamentally flawed. It doesn’t require much enthusiasm or conviction to proclaim any of the last three Strokes’ albums their third best. But as I thought about it, I recognized the inalienable truth inherent in that statement: “Third best” is the highest ceiling achievable by any new Strokes album. There’s a minority faction that will tell you Room On Fire is better than Is This It (a defensible if incorrect opinion), but even the most randomly contrarian provocateurs won’t argue that First Impressions or Angles belongs in that conversation. And Comedown Machine won’t make the cut either. It can’t. It couldn’t. Perhaps for that very reason, the new album feels like a total reinvention of the Strokes — even though they’re being reinvented as two or maybe even three different bands, not equally successfully.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first: The songs that don’t work as well are generally more drab than they are bad, although a couple have moments that do make them actively irritating. Among that latter group? First single “One Way Trigger,” which borrows the synths from A-ha’s “Take On Me,” but doesn’t bother pairing them with a worthy (or worthwhile) melody. Also in that category: “80’s Comedown Machine,” which is all swoony Casio keyboard washes and pre-programmed rhythms that drone on without getting anywhere — without even really heading anywhere. In the former group? “All The Time” and “50 50″ are serviceable if pointless rockers that feel out of place amidst the summery chillrock that makes up the rest of the album, and aren’t on par with the best chargers on, say, First Impressions, where they would have otherwise fit in just fine (assuming you could actually fit more music on that disc).
Everything else, though, is varying degrees of win. The album opens with the gauzy, Coca Cola-sweet “Tap Out,” an immediate highlight that — refreshingly — wouldn’t fit on any other Strokes album, even as it uses guitar and vocal textures employed by the band since 2001. “Welcome To Japan” matches a disco beat with guitars that alternate between slashing and soothing, and a straight-up divine melody from Casablancas, one of the best he’s ever written. “Slow Animals” has a smooth R&B groove to match its title, and then Casablancas swoops in with a giant chorus that raises the thing two or three notches, from a 6 or 7 to a 9. “Partners In Crime” opens with a drumbeat straight off Is This It, but as soon as it hits the first verse it shifts into a dreamy lite-funk haze — if it featured a different vocalist, it might sound like either Stereolab or … Jamiroquai. “Chances” features Casablancas doing an Antony-esque falsetto — not necessarily a great look for him! — but the melody he’s constructed is so sublime that all his choices are redeemed, rewarded, even. “Happy Endings” is full of pixilated, pointillistic guitars and a manic Casablancas vocal that appears to be spiraling out of control, an appearance belied by the sheer intricacy of the thing. “Call It Fate Call It Karma” is kind of a throwaway, but it’s also kind of a gorgeous little daydream-made-sound, and its blissful airiness pairs well with the rest of Comedown Machine’s strongest moments, so I’m inclined to put it in the “pros” column.
The problem, if you want to call it one, is that the reinvented Strokes don’t really sound like the Strokes. The common refrain — which I’m repeating here because it’s pretty on the money — is that Comedown Machine sounds like Phoenix. Musically, that’s a good thing: Phoenix are a fantastic band. But it raises real questions about the Strokes brand. Phoenix flaunt and at least tacitly embrace their Yacht Rock tendencies, but the Strokes have always been a “real” rock band. In truth, both are lifestyle bands more than they are representatives of any genre, but the Phoenix lifestyle doesn’t just grow old gracefully; it’s old, period. On the other hand, if the Strokes aren’t repping for hipster kids, for whom exactly are they repping? Hipster dads?
More than Phoenix, even, the new Strokes record sounds to me like the second Julian Casablancas solo album, the follow-up to his strong 2009 release, Phrazes For The Young. Casablancas has always been a terrifically gifted writer of melodies, and front to back, Comedown Machine may contain his strongest to date. But it also suppresses the rest of the band’s contributions, to the extent those guys actually contributed. (And again, who knows?) And if they contributed only minimally, well, that kind of adds up: The young Strokes were always, per McInerney, “a democracy under a dictator,” and Casablancas didn’t allow for much collaboration till First Impressions — or, precisely the point at which the ship began to sink, the record that came after the two untouchable classics.
So where does Comedown Machine rank in the canon (or the Countdown)? On first listen, I had it at No. 4, behind First Impressions, simply because First Impressions has always seemed to me primarily a victim of unrealistic and outsize ambitions, and I’m inclined to forgive such flaws when they’re obscuring good ideas. (Trim that thing to 10 songs, re-record ‘em with Gordon Raphael instead of David Kahne, and suddenly it’s better than Room On Fire, IMO.) A few times through Comedown Machine, though, and … well, I’ll re-quote Tim here: After a few listens, I legitimately think this could be their third best album. Even if it’s not the Strokes of old — the five guys who got us to rock skinny jeans and Chucks and nasty neon ID bracelets — even if it’s not the Strokes at all … yeah, I think I’d slot it third. More importantly, though: Right now, today, it’s the Strokes album I’d reach for first.