Angles Turns 10
The Strokes released Angles 10 years ago today. I always thought it was a frustrating, mediocre chapter in the band’s history. Is it time for a 180?
There was good reason for skepticism heading into the album. The Strokes hadn’t released anything since 2006’s overlong and undercooked First Impressions Of Earth, an album born from a tortured creation process that nearly destroyed the band. More than three years later, after a lengthy hiatus, the band had announced a return to the studio and a new, more collaborative creative process. Julian Casablancas, who had always maintained a meticulous control over the recordings, was now letting his bandmates have a say. In fact, he had swung so far in the opposite direction that sessions with producer Joe Chiccarelli were proceeding without Casablancas present, much to the other Strokes’ dismay. “There was a lot of back and forth,” bassist Nikolai Fraiture later told Spin. “I don’t know if Julian had trouble being with us — I don’t know what was going through his mind. There were tensions.” By the end of the year they were nowhere near finished with the album, and Casablancas had dropped his solo debut Phrazes For The Young, renewing speculation about whether the Strokes would even continue as a band.
On the other hand, there was reason for supremely high expectations. Ever since a worshipful UK music press had first anointed them the saviors of rock ‘n’ roll, the Strokes had been accumulating absurd, ecstatic hype. With their 2001 debut Is This It and its 2003 follow-up Room On Fire, they somehow lived up to it. Over the course of two albums, Casablancas had proven himself a master of compact, propulsive guitar-pop tracks with just the right amount of fuzz, songs built like luxury watches that somehow ended up at a thrift store. Seasoning his Velvet Underground worship with some some howling, bellowing Jim Morrison swagger and loopy Guided By Voices joie de vivre, the guy had orchestrated twin masterpieces, quick and catchy dispatches that felt fresh despite their obvious callbacks to rock history. And like VU, those albums inspired quite a few bands that outsold the Strokes, which is partially how we ended up with First Impressions and its misguided flirtations with the sound of American alt-rock radio.
To those of us enraptured by those first two Strokes albums, who’d been deeply disappointed by the third one, “Under Cover Of Darkness” was the sound of everything great about this band snapping back into focus. As a lead single, it sold Angles as not just a qualitative return to form but also a throwback to the group’s signature style. Far be it from me to demand a band keep making the same kind of song in perpetuity, but when attempts to venture out in new directions fail to channel the same electricity, it’s just nice to hear a team of masters doing what they do best, you know? Here were Nick Valensi, Albert Hammond Jr., and Nikolai Fraiture zipping and diving across a violently swinging Fab Moretti backbeat, with Casablancas at the center of the action crooning the kinds of work-hard-and-say-it’s-easy hooks he made his legend on. Hearing them rock this between “You Only Live Once” and “New York City Cops” at SXSW in the lead-up to Angles was transcendent. The motherfucking Strokes were back, baby!
Not exactly. “Under Cover Of Darkness” was a feint. Angles was thankfully bereft of loudness-wars misfires like the cyborg monstrosity “Juicebox,” but it was by no means an all-killer-no-filler masterpiece like the first two LPs, nor did it strictly adhere to that classic Strokes style. Having kicked Chiccarelli to the curb and holed up at Hammond’s house with engineer Gus Oberg, the band spent 2010 both refining and experimenting; Fraiture cited such vanguard talents of the moment as MGMT and Crystal Castles as influences, both of which make some kind of sense even though the end result sounds nothing like either one. The Angles that emerged after two years of strained, protracted sessions (“I won’t do the next album we make like this,” Valensi told Pitchfork, describing the process as “awful — just awful”) was a mixed bag, commendable for its ambitious, exploratory ethos but doling out its endorphin-rush moments less generously. They took some big swings here, and sometimes the thrill is in hearing them expand their horizons. Weirdly, despite Casablancas’ passive involvement in the process, it sometimes feels like a dry run for the truly zonked material he’d later release with the Voidz.
Beyond “Under Cover Of Darkness,” only the would-be Room On Fire deep cut “Taken For A Fool” goes all-in on old-school Strokes vibes. Closer “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight” comes close, but drenching Julian’s trance-like melody in shrieking keyboards lends the track a curious zoned-out vibe. Their attempts at extreme minimalism (“Call Me Back”) and maximalism (“Metabolism”) are fascinating and rewarding, if not exactly enthralling. Ditto “Games,” which laid the groundwork for superior electronic ventures on 2013’s Comedown Machine. And even if a song like “You’re So Right” feels stilted compared to the Strokes at their best, the song’s aggro guitar work rips.
Not all of the new ideas require so much hedging. “Two Kinds Of Happiness” expertly segues from airy new wave to surging harmonic bombardment and back. Opener “Machu Picchu” is one of the group’s finest jittery rhythmic exercises. And “Gratisfication,” my lord. A vintage Strokes guitar-pop banger that kicks and struts like peak Thin Lizzy? Now there’s an innovation I can get behind. The boys truly were back in town on that one.
At the time of release, Angles felt like a jumbled mess to me. It still feels like a jumbled mess, but the passage of time has allowed me to hear the album with different expectations. Given how in sync and on point the Strokes had been on those first two albums, it was easy to dismiss the relative chaos and imperfection of this album as an extension of their First Impressions decline, the last gasp of a band barely holding it together. The tense and drawn-out creative process surrounding its creation contributed to this sense of Angles as an underwhelming endpoint for the Strokes.
A decade later, it scans as an awkward transition into a whole new era. Almost exactly two years after Angles, the Strokes returned with Comedown Machine — a shockingly quick turnaround after the previous five-year gap between albums. Comedown Machine was more sleek and focused than Angles, but by no means was it the conclusion of a trilogy with Is This It and Room On Fire. It was more like the completion of a transformation that had been in progress on Angles. They had attained a new form, owing more to ’80s synthpop and new wave than the ’70s punk and garage rock that had fueled their original sound. A lot of surrounding factors suggested Comedown Machine was released mainly to fulfill the Strokes’ five-album deal with RCA — minimal promo, giant RCA logo on the cover — and I’m well aware that some Strokes fans view it as a step down from Angles. Maybe for you it didn’t pack the same punch as the notably more aggressive Angles. For me, Comedown Machine was a low-key brilliant collection of songs that proved the Strokes had a future beyond their original aesthetic.
Perplexingly, they then disappeared again, for an even longer stretch. Casablancas released two albums with the Voidz on which he indulged his wildest creative impulses and seemed to litigate his issues with the Strokes in the lyrics. (“I don’t wanna be a puppet that the ghost of my young self still controls,” yeesh.) Then, after seven years, the Strokes came back with an album that altered their arc in a more profound way. The world received The New Abnormal as rapturously as a Strokes album could be received in 2020. Fans widely heralded it as the band’s best work since their Mercury Lounge glory days. It even won them their first Grammy. Also, they finally seemed to like each other again.
Casablancas once explained “Two Kinds Of Happiness” like so: “It’s weird how people say they want to ‘be happy’ when it’s really two separate things: One is long term, one is short term, and they don’t have anything to do with each other.” With that in mind, is The New Abnormal really that much better than the two albums that preceded it, or had listeners finally stopped chasing that old euphoria and settled into the Strokes’ new paradigm, the way a passionate courtship can grow into a contented marriage with some growing pains along the way? The pure elation of the band’s early days was never coming back. Angles was a necessary step toward a more permanent arrangement, the sound of a band punching and flailing their way to continued existence when they could have just as easily given up. More importantly, time has been kind to the songs themselves, many of which are too good to be shrugged off as stepping stones to some future glory. So have I done a full reversal on Angles? I think of it more like a 90-degree turn, a case of expectations meeting reality halfway. But in at least one sense, my understanding of the album has been completely flipped around: What once seemed like the death throes of a legendary band was actually a document new life taking hold.