Sounding Board

Past, Present, No Future? Struggling To Love The Strokes In 2016

Let’s talk about names. Following the eruption of hype surrounding the Strokes at the beginning of the ’00s, a seemingly endless series of bands proliferated in their rock-revival wake. A lot of these bands were of a similar ethos — garage-leaning guitar-based music that called back significantly to the late ’70s — and as major labels swarmed New York to find the next Strokes, there were countless groups called “The Somethings” that you may or may not remember today. There is a generic quality to the structure of “The + Empty Signifier” or “The + Catchy Word.” If you only had those one or two great songs, it promised an encroaching anonymity in the jumble of similarly named groups in the scene. The flipside is that there’s something classic about it, and if a great band adopts a random word, suddenly it becomes indelible. There wasn’t any inherent meaning behind the Strokes’ moniker. Or, rather, there was an emptiness defined by whatever meaning you wanted to find in it: something sexual, something sensual, an arresting physical event, luck, art in a brushstroke. It’s the kind of name where the band could be anything you wanted and/or needed them to be, and because they were a great band, they just became the Strokes. The word meant them. Contrary to the leagues of faceless “The Somethings” that surrounded them, the Strokes were a band, and a brand, you could believe in.

Here’s another name: Future Present Past, the oh-so-inspiring title the Strokes chose for their new EP, the first bit of new music they’ve released since 2013’s Comedown Machine. For almost a decade now, there is this pressure riding on whatever move the Strokes make. After burning very fast and very hot up until the complicated situation of 2006’s divisive First Impressions Of Earth, the band seemed to temporarily implode: an extended hiatus ensued, they released a pseudo-comeback album in 2011’s Angles, and then Comedown Machine two years later. Ever since First Impressions, there’s been this lingering threat that the Strokes will truly, finally, dissolve. The sessions for Angles, the first where frontman Julian Casablancas loosened his control and let the other members contribute songwriting, were reportedly strained and miserable. They appeared to be in a better headspace by Comedown Machine, but their decision to not do any press or tour behind that album came across as them disowning the work, and in turn meant that the album came and went far more quietly than a Strokes release should. Through the years, there have been solo projects while the band have remained noncommittal or inconclusive regarding when new Strokes material might be forthcoming. It’s felt like we’ve been waiting for the real, triumphant return of the Strokes for five years, while it’s also felt as if the band could cease to exist at any given moment. Within that context, I guess Future Present Past is supposed to be some kind of promise that, yes, they’re still here, and they’re going to still be here. I mean, I guess.

Musically, Future Present Past is pretty much…fine. Three years after their last album, we have three new songs and a remix of one of those new songs, provided by the band’s drummer Fab Moretti. The EP’s first track, “Drag Queen,” sounds like New Order initially, so that’s promising. Then it not so much careens as listlessly wanders off the rails, meandering and gargling like the mostly disastrous Tyranny, Casablancas’ last solo record. (He made that LP with the Voidz, who come to think of it sound and look like a bunch of guys left over from the shattered remains of several The Somethings You Don’t Remember From 2004.) “Threat Of Joy” is an inoffensively serviceable Strokes-By-Numbers moment that plays like it’s still figuring itself out as it goes along, with great moments puncturing empty space. “OBLIVIUS” is the best song here, and would’ve been a great addition to Angles. And…that’s it.

Beyond the songs themselves, however, the existence of Future Present Past is disconcerting because it seems to confirm what it’s been easy to feel about this band in the last several years. Since the end of the hiatus, we’ve mostly gotten a version of the Strokes that can just barely get together to do a bunch of festival headlining slots playing all the old favorites. They reliably look like they could hardly be bothered while they’re actually doing it. Now, this is a band whose initial power and popularity were partially driven by the currency of their particular slacker cool. We loved them because they were the aloof downtown kids. There was something magical in this gang — and they were one of the last rock bands who seemed like a real gang in the old rock band mold — hanging around soon-to-disappear Lower East Side dive bars and generally not giving a shit while cranking out two unassailable albums that were loaded with hooks wall-to-wall. In several ways, that was always an illusion. They might’ve been old friends, but Casablancas was in charge, and the gang image may have just been one more element of his dictatorial control over the group’s direction. And that slacker cool may have been real in terms of the group’s sound and personality, but it was created via stringent perfectionism on Casablancas’ part, the same perfectionism that would soon prove stultifying and fuel the conflicts that necessitated the hiatus. The detachment of the Strokes in 2016 is different than that old performative one, though. They simply look like they’re going through the motions.

There’s something philosophically irritating about Future Present Past arriving before the band headlines a pair of festival dates. It scans as disingenuous, as “Well, we have to do something.” I’m not here trying to dismiss the Strokes’ post-hiatus work. Angles and Comedown Machine are both great; underrated, really. Those albums are conflicted and a little all-over-the-place, representative of a band that didn’t always seem like they really wanted to be a band anymore, or what they should do if they were. But the songs were there, and there were suggestions of all these interesting directions the Strokes could potentially explore. But combined with their handling Comedown Machine as almost a non-entity, waiting three years to release this EP just in time for more festival dates doesn’t make it feel exciting or inspiring. It sounds like the first musical embodiment of the groaningly slow, uninterested machine that is latter-day Strokes. It reeks of: “We barely mustered the energy to record three half-baked songs so that we have the bare minimum of new material to not be a total nostalgia act on this latest run of festival dates, which, yes, in case you were wondering will definitely include Julian looking like he doesn’t want to be here.” It doesn’t seem creatively driven, to say the least. They should rename the band the ¯\_(?)_/¯s.

There are certain bands, whether through the strike of runaway inspiration or due to some mythic narrative, are not built to last. They appear, release some game-changing and brilliant record or two, and then they flare out or disappear. Consider the Sex Pistols, or Strokes-progenitors Television, or the Stone Roses. Reunion tours notwithstanding, these are the sort of groups who had one seminal, untouchable work, and then either ended abruptly or released another album you never talk about. Where were any of those groups supposed to really go after their debuts? The Strokes followed Television in ways beyond their style, in that sense. Is This It? and Room On Fire were furious and infectious and perfect, and they were full of music that only made sense being played by young and decadent characters. The Strokes were always going to have the uphill battle of somehow maturing within the confines they’d built for themselves. It’s better for some groups to burn out, to dramatically grind apart and leave you wondering what could’ve been. Currently, it seems as if we’re watching the negative alternative with the Strokes in real time as they’ve gone from vital young band to apathetic classic rock at an accelerated rate.

So what’s Future Present Past supposed to stand for, then? Is it a stop-gap hinting a full-fledged album is en route? It’s just as easy to imagine that it’ll be the last thing they ever manage to do, and that there’s some finality to the title, acknowledging where they are now and what they were and whatever else they’ll all become individually. (At the very least, you get the sense that Albert Hammond Jr. and Casablancas would be satisfied — happier, even — to someday just be known as themselves, and not “The guys from the Strokes doing solo projects.) You can read it as descriptors of the songs themselves — “Threat Of Joy” is the Past, “OBLIVIUS” is the present, and I guess that means “Drag Queen” is the Future? This might be overly generous. Compared to the multiple meanings you could find in name the Strokes, you could strive for them in Future Present Past and this moment in the Strokes’ trajectory, and arrive at nothing significant. This was just an EP they did for whatever reason, and those were words they could put on the front.

It’s easy to feel for the Strokes on some level. This is the kind of problem thousands of bands would kill to have, but the Strokes have early work that is so beloved and iconic that it condemns them to essentially let down someone no matter what they do going forward. There’s this inscribed narrative that, basically, they’re never going to get back the fire of those first two albums, and the best we can hope for is this semi-functional mechanism to keep plugging along. The albums might continue being really good. The actual issue is that the Strokes don’t seem like they’re up for rising to the challenge of that plight. They don’t seem to be interested in trying to make another album that dominates everything, another masterpiece. And that’s what’s so frustrating about them, even as they continue to be a good band. I still want to believe in the Strokes. I still want to think they can reclaim that fire, that fervor, they once had. They’re never going to be those kids again, and they shouldn’t try to be. But contrary to what would seem logical given what defined this band back in the day, it’s easy to find yourself wishing for a 2016 version of the Strokes that at least seemed like they were trying, like they were trying to figure out what their band could be now that they’re all adults with other lives. Once, they made perfection look effortless. Now, the best thing the Strokes could do would be to actually give a damn, to bleed a little, to give us some sense that their name still has as much meaning for them as it does for us.

Tags: The Strokes