The great hope of rock and roll critics at the start of the 21st century, the Strokes, released their newest record Comedown Machine last month. It was met with the sort of lukewarm reviews that the band has been receiving for years now; about the greatest compliment anyone can give it is that "it's better than their last one."
What went wrong? Prior to their break from releasing albums between the years 2006 and 2011, the band had been critical darlings and the hippest band to like since Pavement hit the airwaves. This was the band everyone had been waiting for to prevent the death of rock at the hands of R&B and hip-hop. So what the hell happened?
Well, to begin with, let's look at the band's earliest days. Coming out of New York City, the Strokes were a breath of fresh air in the post-Britpop landscape of indie-rock. They had a laid-back rock sound that evoked the best of David Bowie and Iggy Pop's late-'70s work and sounded like a band fresh out of the garage making noises that teenagers could actually hum along to. No cheese, none of the garbage nu-metal trappings of radio rock of the time, and no pretension.
They came on with a sound that today is commonplace, but at the time was a revolution. It was a rejection of everything that had made mainstream rock overwrought, clichéd, and annoying after Nirvana, while also being catchy and vital enough to overcome people's aversions to the weirdness and rawness of prior indie-rock. It didn't hurt either that the members were sexy and hip, when most indie-rock musicians up that point had been weird music nerds who had neither the desire nor the capability to be sexy or hip.
They were also rocking at a time when rock's other greatest hope, Radiohead, had all but abandoned guitar-driven rock and roll music. If the biggest band in the world at the time had said "we've had enough of guitars," that meant something, but the Strokes came out unafraid to play squeally, guitar-driven rock, even while possessing some of the same root sounds as Radiohead, with their staccato bass lines and stiff, mechanical drumming.
Is This It? paved the way for bands like Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, Spoon, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Phoenix to top the charts and get their songs in movies, TV shows, and advertisements when no one could have ever guessed in the previous decade that bands like those would go anywhere but into the headphones of a record-store clerk.
In effect, a band like Arcade Fire could never have taken home Album of the Year at the Grammys if people hadn't been introduced to the Strokes first.
With an album like Is This It? to ignite their fanbase, the Strokes could coast for a while purely on that. And they did. Let's be honest here, if we're discussing how vital Is This It? was to the indie-rock revolution of the past decade, we have to admit that follow-up Room on Fire did little more than toe the party line. Which is okay, because that's a common thing for sophomore records to do. It's nothing surprising, and there's nothing wrong with it really.
However, it means that the third record has to reignite the public's love and remind them why they were paying attention to the band in the first place. This is where things start to hit the rocks for the Strokes. With First Impressions of Earth, the band dropped the ball hard because they didn't come out swinging. They came out laconic and bored, peddling the same tones and crashing in the same car that had driven them to success.
To quote Drowned in Sound's Jonathan Fisher, "you'll still be left with two or three top tunes to add to your daily playlists, but it was never going to be ground-breaking or innovative."
Therein lies the problem. For a band to revolutionize the landscape with their first record, and by the third one to have nothing innovative to say, is almost a death knell. In a world which had taken its notes from Is This It? religiously and had come out with retread and retread of the sound they had popularized by 2006, the Strokes had no choice but to sink or swim depending on their actions. They chose to sink with their sound, which had been played and played.
Enter the break. The dreaded indefinite hiatus. This is a double-edged sword for any band. Yes, it can revitalize a band creatively, but if they return, will anyone be listening? Or, if they return and play the hits for a generation who missed them the first time around, will anyone want to hear their new material?
If the burnout evident on First Impressions was any evidence, the Strokes probably didn't care much at that point.
In the meantime, front man and principal songwriter Julian Casablancas launched a middling solo career that sounded about as vital as First Impressions had in 2006. It's telling that before even releasing his solo record -- 2009's Phrazes for the Young -- Casablancas had already jumped back into Strokes mode, as if predicting his own failure as a solo artist. (Indeed, it hit the charts lower than any Strokes record, including their most recent two.) Work began for a new Strokes record that year, but it wouldn't materialize until 2011.
What took so long? The recording sessions were tense, for one thing. The band could not come to enough of an agreement on the songs to get the thing out by the end of 2009 like they had planned.
Eventually Casablancas simply walked out and left the rest of the band to write and record the album, giving vague directions and phoning in his vocals from home. Ostensibly this would force the rest of the band to contribute rather than asking Casablancas to simply write everything as he had previously. In the end, no one was happy with this but Casablancas himself.
The arrangement clearly didn't work and the evidence was right there when anyone turned on the record. Angles hit the charts at No. 4 in 2011, matching their two previous albums, but it earned the Strokes their worst reviews of their career. Why? The band had taken too long and could no longer coast on the good will left over from Is This It?. In fact, now it simply stood in the shadow of that landmark album, which by 2011 had been officially canonized by the indie-rock community, and paled in comparison.
Angles was Strokes-lite, but worse it didn't even sound like the Strokes coasting. It sounded like the Strokes searching for something and not finding it. They couldn't crash in the car anymore, they didn't even know where the keys were to start it.
And now we have Comedown Machine, which even the band has promised to be a return to form. Casablancas is back in the driver's seat and recording with the band, rather than from a million miles from them, and the sound has been found. Or so it would seem from press releases and interviews.
The reality is seen in the reviews. Is this it? No, it's not. Even Rolling Stone, longtime defenders of the band, had to ask why they even bothered to make this album and why it wasn't just a Casablancas solo project. The band has lost touch so much with their sound that they've become faceless, but they've yet to find anything new to provide to listeners that will replace it in their hearts.
Throughout Comedown Machine they just keep searching for a sound, as they did on Angles, jumping from one genre experiment to another on each track. And yes, sometimes it hits, and it's definitely a better album than Angles, but the problem remains.
The ship has sailed on the Strokes' post-Is This It? good will and now that they have no idea what the fuck they're trying to do is abundantly clear to all. Until they settle on a sound and perfect it, they're in the car but they're not driving anywhere. They're stuck idling on the runway, throwing darts at a wall and asking "is this it?" to each idea that comes to their mind.
It's a sad tale to tell, but all hope is not lost yet. Comedown Machine might extend an olive branch after the poor reception of Angles and they still hit No. 10 with the album. But it's 2013, not 2001, and something must be done.
It's likely they can drag this thing out to the next record, and if they find a sound that hits the spot then they'll likely be welcomed back with open arms. But it's a harrowing road from here on out, because if they don't hit next time, it's likely to be their last chance before becoming another stop on the nostalgia tour circuit.