Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Strokes: Comedown Machine (2013)



"I love the new Strokes record" is not a sentence I ever expected to utter again in my life; you know how much I enjoy differing with conventional wisdom but I have to follow along with the rock masses in alleging that the Strokes have virtually defined the Law of Diminishing Returns for the new millennium. I bought fully into the hype of the band in 2001, tried to pretend I hadn't in 2002, secretly adored their hyped-up-until-kersplat sophomore record in 2003, and everything since then has been, well, to use a phrase that was much less loaded back then, "complicated." The band's mythology has been second only to Interpol's in the NYC-scenester hall of shame. They had it all: outsized egos for no apparent reason (they've never enjoyed the kind of commercial success that their press savvy would suggest), lengthy profiles that made it sound as if they wanted to slit one another's throats, and a weird sense of drugged-out empty promises and post-lust haze.

When I rediscovered Is This It at the close of the last decade, it seemed suddenly clear to me that there would have been no widely acceptable way to follow it, but there was something admirable in the way this workhorse just kept at it. Combine the front-loaded First Impressions of Earth and the even more front-loaded Angles and you can come up with a decent if bizarrely sickly party record, but the writing seemed to be on the wall; frankly, I dreaded hearing Comedown Machine, fully expecting a harshly ugly contract-fulfillment piece of early-onset dad rock & roll. Following their weird discovery of early-'80s bargain bin power pop and New Romantic records, we seemed in for the Strokes to join their indie rock brethren and start trying to ape the soft rock titans of their new favorite decade. In between veiled insults, the next Julian Casablancas interview would surely include something about Tom Petty being his "savior."

I don't know what happened instead. It's hard to get a handle on it because Comedown Machine is such a pure burst of pleasure almost from start to end, but while the Strokes time machine train ride through the 1980s continues with their evident acquisition of a copy of So, some hung-over Eurodisco and whatever the fuck inspired that vocoder bit on "Happy Ending," they are suddenly playing with a dedication that is entirely new to them, and a sense of spirited songcraft that has been absent from their work for at least the past decade. It's as though they suddenly started to care, and the paltry reaction to Angles seems, if anything, to have helped; they are back from the dead, and freed at last from the curse of expectations, the grappling for what was never really theirs to begin with: a wisp of a moment that passed before they could harness it in all the ash and regret of 2001.

The liberated Strokes aren't wholly different from the neo-Strokes of Was That It? that have generated three records now. "50/50" is a brief burst of what I'd consider status quo give-the-people-what-they-want sans early vitality, and the first single from this is just as completely terrible as the first single from Angles: "All the Time," easily this record's worst selection, sounds almost comically tired (and bears a curious resemblance to an early unreleased R.E.M. song called "Mystery to Me," but that's neither here nor there). Like Interpol these days! But we also have here evidence that this band, never personality-driven enough to begin with to tempt us to try and "grow up" with them (like say, R.E.M.), has learned how to age gracefully now. In all the busy riffage of "'80s Comedown Machine," there is a lively and romantic... calm? It's nearly indescribable, but it's transcendent in its effortlessness like early '70s Stones, or New Adventures in Hi-Fi or the National -- the kind of rock music that manages to spin fascination and heavy emotion from shades of gray.

That makes Comedown Machine sound less lively and exciting than it is. I love it on headphones (the way I fell hard for Room on Fire), but I love it while driving at night -- can it be that this band's non-flukish calling is a nocturnal new wave that's here allowed to shine? You can make the case easily with "One Way Trigger," an actually unusual and sensual piece of alternative-ish rock, a truly rare thing today; it's a striking contrast of seduction and manic energy and puts an end to years of mediocre lead performances by Julian Casablancas. His falsetto on this brash pop concoction is great. No, really. He puts it into better service yet on "Slow Animals," a calm slow-burn nest of a groove that shows verifiable songwriting growth from this band. The hook is subtle, well-crafted and actually dances atop itself, allowing them (especially Casablancas) to get lost in themselves for the first time in what seems like eons. They've never seemed less self-conscious, and the resulting song is true magic -- their best in ten years, perhaps longer if you don't love "What Ever Happened" as much as I do.

A distinctive feature of both "Slow Animals" and the splendid "Welcome to Japan" is not merely their more assured grooves, compared to tracks on Angles that attempted similar bigness and glitter, but the Strokes' ability to ride them to their logical conclusions and continually discovering new places to take the song, a contrast to their formula of presenting the entire layout for a given track in the first ten seconds with little variance. "Japan" boasts a tricky, intricate chorus even if you can't ignore lyrics like "what kind of asshole drives a Lotus?" as well as most listeners probably will. Its virtues apply to the full record: it's danceable and rollicking, sure, but more than that it's purely lovely -- an evolution beyond the gimmickry of Angles that feels something like, uh, maturity (the good kind).

It's not a contradiction, it's juggling. In that regard, we have the direct and personal, catchy "Partners in Crime" that swims in vulnerability but also swagger; the sheen of calmness on opener "Tap Out" that sets it apart instantly, while the vocals themselves are able to impart a sense of urgency in their weird soulfulness, a weight Casablancas would once upon a time have been reluctant to carry. Is the freedom of leaving a big label really this persuasive, and has it ever before prompted a group to discover so many new capabilities? After all these years, it's like they're only now realizing their full potential. Clearly some folks will be put off by the rampant cheeriness and vocal layering and whatnot, but there are so many towering pieces of pure joy here so fuck the old logic that image problems matter. Maura Johnston wrote that she believed she enjoyed this record because she never bought into the Strokes' mythos in the beginning; I did, at an age when I unwisely believed the best thing a young band could do was sound as much as possible like old bands I really dug. But this still lands for me.

And what's the big secret the Strokes have abruptly stumbled upon? Well, that they're a BAND! Creatively restless and adventurous, enough so to cook up a kooky song like "Call It Faith, Call It Karma" that's playful but not up its own ass, sounding like it could've played in the strip-boat sequence in Beasts of the Southern Wild. All the more fascinatingly, they're a really excellent band that can do things their peers often cannot. On "Chances," they commit cardinal sins: initially it sounds like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, not a big stretch for obvious reasons, with a shade of spaced-out grimy mid-'90s nightclub, then there's some impeccably crafted but highly odd Berlin / Mr. Mister thing that happens and it's earned and playful and fun, not intolerable like so many sinister soft-rock revivalist moments in the recent history of "indie." The thesis? Through hard work and trial and error, they've developed and have learned how to make their various obsessions and musical hangups work for them, and how to turn them all into something distinctive but broadly appealing. The happiest possible ending, only I now hope it's not an ending -- when mere weeks ago I swore this would be the last time I ever checked out a new Strokes album. Nope!

Angles (2011)

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