The band's fourth album, Angles, proves the quintet is best when it's being itself
Sony Music Entertainment
"I've been out around this town / everybody's singing the same song for ten years," sings Julian Casablancas in "Under Cover of Darkness," the dazzlingly good lead single from the Strokes' fourth album, Angles (out in the U.S. next Tuesday). It's a sneaky line with a sharpness that escapes on first listen, partly because it's buried in such a heart-racing track but mostly because, wait, has it really been ten years?
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Indeed it has: This September marks a decade since the Strokes burst from Manhattan privilege into rock stardom with Is This It, maybe the last best "event" debut the music industry has since been able to muster. The Strokes were supposed to change everything, until they didn't, until they kind of did, by which point nobody was expecting it and the band that had once burned so brightly had quietly burned out.
Now they're back, and to end all suspense, Angles is an impressive piece of work, infectious and inventive, a welcome reminder that Casablancas is one of the best songwriters of his generation and that his band's a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. "Machu Picchu" is a hooky mélange of faux-dub and faux-disco punctuated with counterfeit horn-lines, and "Two Kinds of Happiness" weds an airy, new-waveish verse to a grandiose chorus with shades of U2. "Games," a lush bath of synths and spacey ambiance, is among the most generically ambitious tracks the band has ever made, while "Life Is Simple in the Moonlight," is a dreamy bit of psychedelia blessedly anchored to a driving, purposeful rhythm section.
Angles is a studio album through and through, lavishly detailed and stylistically reminiscent of Casablancas' excellent 2009 solo debut, Phrazes for the Young. It shows that the Strokes are still better at being "the Strokes" than anyone else, but that they've also gotten pretty good at being other things as well. If the band's career since Is This It has been a series of efforts to answer that title with a resounding "no," Angles should end the argument. The more pressing question is whether that argument's still open, and if the Strokes ever really had a say in its outcome.
The story of the Strokes is a story of the precocity of youth colliding with the weight of expectations, the messy result refracted through the fickleness of music fandom. For those who invest significant parts of our identity in how we consume music (and if you've gotten this far you're probably one of us), the Strokes' emergence remains viscerally memorable. After a buzzed-up EP, fawning coverage in the British press, and a rave review in Rolling Stone that most people read in an actual magazine, Is This It was released on September 25, 2001. The shadow of 9/11 gave it all a weird gravity, and the consensus was that the Strokes were poised to become the first really meaningful band to emerge from New York since the late 1970s.
They were a band to be talked about in the best sense, but pretty soon talking about the Strokes became talking about talking about the Strokes. And then came the backlash, as accusations circulated that Casablancas' father—Elite Model Management founder John Casablancas—had bought the band its renown, and that the New York music media had a vested interest in seeing one of its own get huge, and, most simply and devastatingly, that oldest of music-snob whipping posts: the Strokes were derivative.
This last one is worth considering, as it's a common and complicated complaint. If I tell you, as I did just a few paragraphs ago, that the chorus to "Two Kinds of Happiness" sounds like U2, the line between praise and put-down is at the level of minute inflection, resting on whether we agree that U2 are a great band or tired hacks . Or perhaps it's just a utilitarian description—to me, that's what the chorus sounds like—though one still predicated on the notion that you're familiar with U2, which is probably a safe enough assumption. But if I told you that Is This It sounded like Television's 1977 NYC proto-punk classic Marquee Moon—a not uncommon comparison ten years ago—that's a different degree of assumption entirely. And if I loudly complain how transparent and inferior the likeness between the two is... well, pretty soon we're really just talking about me.
The Strokes were cool, and cool begets a need to find something cooler. After all, even though investing my identity in my musical tastes is a lot of fun, it also probably bespeaks some pretty fundamental insecurities. For the band's part, Is This It didn't sell quite as well as hoped, didn't produce the era-defining single that "Someday" and "Hard To Explain" both deserved to be, and when the still-underrated follow-up album Room on Fire arrived in 2003 there was already a "remember them?" clinging to everything. 2006's First Impressions of Earth was a befuddling record that sold poorly, and then they kind of just stopped, twenty-somethings relegated to softly lit corridors of nostalgia.
When bands like the Killers and Franz Ferdinand started mining Is This It for the radio play and ad-placement that the Strokes never quite achieved, it took a while to notice. But slowly critics came back around to both the band and its increasingly evident legacy, and by late 2009 Rolling Stone had named Is This It the second-best album of the decade; England's NME went one better and named it the best. It was probably a bit much, since Is This It wasn't even the best album of September 2001—Jay-Z's The Blueprint came out two weeks earlier—but the rediscovery was deserved, and it was nice to finally be talking about what the Strokes were rather than who they weren't.
What the Strokes still are is a damned good rock and roll band, one that's always insisted that music with guitars and drums should still be something you can dance to, so fiercely it feels like an ethical stance. For all its adventuresome expansions, Angles works best when the Strokes stay close to the comforts of home: "Gratisfaction" is a shuffling and bedraggled bit of R&B that recalls the Stones in more than name, the kind of song no one writes anymore but more people should, and "Taken for a Fool" is a hook-infested thicket of ideas that most bands would lack the talent to even dream of.
And then of course there's "Under Cover of Darkness," among the best work the band has ever done and a moving reminder of why some of us once thought the Strokes might change the world just a little in the first place. It's three minutes of steel-eyed precision dressed in swagger and sparkle, the verses playful, the pre-chorus so good you think it's the chorus until the actual chorus hits and knocks the breath out of you both because it's even better and because, wow, these guys actually care enough to do things like write pre-choruses.
Combine all this with harmonized guitar lines, pulsating bass, and a Fab Moretti drum performance that channels early Ringo and it's the kind of song you want to hear again before it's even over. Most importantly, it speaks to that most wonderful paradox that bands like the Strokes always understand: that rock and roll is a profoundly fun thing, and it's most fun when it's made by and for people who can't help but take it all a little too seriously.