It’s hard being The Strokes. After setting the template for the next ten years of guitar-based rock with their 2001 debut, Is This It, it wasn’t long before the NYC quintet was being outpaced by the bands they paved the way for. After some time apart, Julian Casablancas, Nikolai Fraiture, Nick Valensi, Fabrizio Moretti, and Albert Hammond Jr. regrouped to play some shows in 2010, and the following year, they released Angles, a decidedly mixed bag that failed to reclaim the band’s former glory. After the brief promotional tour behind the album, the once-upon-a-time media darlings retreated to New York City and kept a low profile. So when the band unexpectedly uploaded “One Way Trigger,” a jittery, synth-driven number with Casablancas trading out his morning-after-hangover growl for a slick pop number not far removed from Ah-Ha’s “Take On Me,” nobody really knew how to react. “Where are the guitars?”, “Julian Casablancas has a falsetto?”, and “Have the Strokes lost their minds?” were all questions that resonated across the Internet, and even though “One Way Trigger” is a relative outlier on the album, Comedown Machine isn’t too close to anything The Strokes have done before, and consequently, more interesting than anything they’ve done in years.
First and foremost, Comedown Machine is clearly the work of the Strokes, but it’s their first album that can’t be accurately described as “Strokes-y”. Roland synths, programmed drum machines, a surprisingly prominent falsetto, and elastic dance grooves all show up here in droves, and their prominence can probably be attributed to Casablancas’ presence in the studio. Julian has always been the stylistic leader of the group (he has writing or co-writing credits on every Strokes song), and he’s been unabashedly obsessed with the ’80s for a while now, so this neon-tinged sonic turn shouldn’t come as a shock. What is surprising, though, is how comfortable the band sounds working with Julian’s new vision. The band had previously incorporated some of these elements on Angles, but the results were often disjointed. Here, they sound focused and well synced, even when they’re operating outside of their guitar-shaped comfort zone. There are some familiar hallmarks – the Valensi-Hammond Jr. guitar style is still present on about half the album, and Fabrizio Moretti remains a better timekeeper than most drum machines – but it’s clear that this is neither the brash, fearless gang that recorded Is This It nor the fractured, self-doubting collective that produced Angles.
In the only interview (to date) regarding Comedown Machine, Nikolai told BBC1’s Zane Lowe, “I feel good about the atmosphere in the band… Hopefully it can continue.” For any other band, this lukewarm statement would be somewhat concerting. But for The Strokes, it’s a huge jump from the largely-negative press clippings from the Angles era. (For example, a 2011 New York Times feature revealed that “each Stroke admitted he’d had his doubts about managing [the creative process of Angles], and how it would be received.”) This newfound positivity is easy to spot all over Comedown Machine, both in the band’s performances and in their songwriting. The highly-danceable opener “Tap Out” features the slick, locked-in rhythm section and Nick Valensi’s (whose playing is more prominent and tasteful than ever) scratchy lead guitar from their earlier material, but Casablancas’ harmonious vocals and Hammond Jr.’s warm organ are new and welcome additions to the band’s sonic repertoire that make it clear right off the bat that the band is not spinning their wheels. “Chances” and “80’s Comedown Machine” are both synth-heavy, mid-tempo numbers, with the latter track stretching to nearly six minutes (double the average Strokes track). “Happy Ending” and “One Way Trigger” both embrace the pop sensibilities of ’80s synthpop with much greater success than the Angles cuts. The closing track, “Call It Fate, Call It Karma,” is a more muttered, abstract version of “I’ll Try Anything Once” that is unlike anything else in their catalog. By changing the band’s sonic template (some credit should also go to producer Gus Oberg) and writing a set of solid songs, Comedown Machine succeeds, at the very least, at not being a boring Strokes album.
More than anyone else here, Casablancas sounds refreshed, and this rejuvenation is what makes Comedown Machine a cohesive, strong album rather than another “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” mess like Angles. (Ironically, the song on Angles that recalled the twin-guitar “classic Strokes” sound [“Under Cover of Darkness”] is that album’s highlight. Comedown Machine’s closest thing to a traditional Strokes song [“All The Time”] sticks out like a sore thumb, and is the album’s weakest link.) Although still low in the mix (some things will never change), Casablancas’ lyrics are vivid and dryly funny (“Welcome To Japan” is a highlight for Casablancas’ performance alone), and his vocals are significantly softer and more melodic here than they have been in the past, and he only pulls out his garage-rock roar once, on the full-force-ahead rocker “50/50″. Furthermore, Comedown Machine‘s songs feel like meticulously crafted finished products, more like the result of the clear vision of a band than the unfinished product of four guys trying to make a record in one studio while their leader critiques and records his parts in another studio on the other side of the country (which, in a move that seems even more absurd in retrospect, was actually how Angles was made).
A little over a decade ago, The Strokes were credited for “saving” rock and roll – and Converse – with their guitar-driven sound and ineffable coolness. Fast forward to 2013, and the once-most fashionable, exciting, and ultimately untouchable band in New York City are holed up in a studio, playing vintage synthesizers eschewing and public appearances. But maybe that’s what they needed to do. Critical opinion of the Strokes’ catalog is almost unanimous: Is This It and Room On Fire are both classics (or, in the latter case, close enough), and First Impressions of Earth and Angles are, for one reason or another, flawed efforts. Comedown Machine is their first album to truly polarize critics – many of whom have taken the chance to mention that this album fulfills the band’s contract with RCA, and therefore, could be interpreted as the band’s final outing – but more importantly, it’s their first album in years to elicit an actually insightful response rather than a slew of “are the Strokes past it?” thinkpieces. Comedown Machine is a success because it shows that Julian, Nick, Fab, Nikolai, and Albert can still work together in one room to create a record. That they can still have fun with each other rather than complain to the press about how awful it was to make the album. That they aren’t going to just drag out “Last Nite” and “Reptilia” for headlining festival slots anymore. Comedown Machine shakes off the idea that the Strokes are just a relic in a world they nearly single-handedly formed, because the Strokes simply don’t exist in that world anymore. If returning to New York City and forgetting that they’re The Strokes (festival headliners, platinum record holders, early ’00s Saviors of Rock and Roll) in order to remind themselves of what it was like to be The Strokes (five young guys enjoying making music with one another), then so be it, because Comedown Machine is a surprisingly lively and exciting effort that no one, probably not not even the Strokes, expected.