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The Strokes reset with 'The New Abnormal'

Twenty years after their historic debut, The Strokes win a Grammy. Their new album resets their career and keeps the hipness intact

Produced by Rick Rubin, one of the top producers of this era, 'The New Abnormal' is probably the best album The Strokes have released since 'Is This It'. Photo: Getty Images
Produced by Rick Rubin, one of the top producers of this era, 'The New Abnormal' is probably the best album The Strokes have released since 'Is This It'. Photo: Getty Images

July will mark the 20th anniversary of Is This It, the album with which the New York-based band The Strokes burst upon the scene. Fame and success came instantly and soon they were being acclaimed as saviours of rock music.

The Strokes, a quintet led by frontman and vocalist Julian Casablancas, were then a bunch of bratty New Yorkers, aged 19-20, oozing attitude and a kind of dishevelled style but also making exciting indie rock infused with a couldn’t-care-less attitude that had been disappearing from the scene.

The album, a huge hit, revived garage rock and indie rock, two genres that had dulled since the 1980s. Some went to the extent of calling the album legendary. Songs such as the title track and The Modern Age are instantly recognisable and continue to remain regulars on indie rock fan playlists. The critical acclaim and commercial success catapulted them to an enviable pinnacle of rock stardom and everything else that comes with that sort of success: fame, a bit of notoriety, and, of course, brisk record sales (those were still pre-streaming days) and sold-out shows.

The Strokes’ brand of music was a no-frills style of punk rock in which songs were made in a simple, back-to-the-basics manner, with few artificial embellishments. But The Strokes added a pop idiom. Musically, it was guitar-driven (actually twin guitar interplays mark much of The Strokes’ sound), hook-filled and catchy; lyrically, Casablancas’ songs dealt with non-abstract, everyday situations such as relationships, addiction, break-ups and so on—much like another but older legendary New York band, The Velvet Underground (whose music has been acknowledged as a big influence by The Strokes); and attitudinally, it radiated 1970s rock star style.

Is This It was followed by Room On Fire, a fitting sophomore album, which kept intact the appeal of Is This It. The Strokes’ members—Casablancas on vocals, Albert Hammond, Jr and Nick Valensi on guitar, Nikolai Fraiture on bass and Fabrizio Moretti on drums— were a tight-knit group. Their production, songcraft and lyrics were top quality, and as a band, they brimmed with energy. Almost everyone in the band came from a privileged New York background (Casablancas’ father was the founder of the Elite Model Management agency, Hammond’s father was a successful singer-songwriter). And they all attended tony private schools in New York and Switzerland.

Unfortunately, The Strokes plateaued after Room On Fire. And although they came out with three more albums (First Impressions Of Earth in 2006, Angles in 2011, and Comedown Machine in 2013), the vagaries of rock stardom caught up with them.

Drug and alcohol abuse and intra-band frictions nearly put paid to what had looked like a glorious career. Till last year, when they released their sixth album, The New Abnormal. Earlier this month, it won the Grammy award for Best Rock Album.

Produced by Rick Rubin, one of the top producers of this era, The New Abnormal is probably the best album The Strokes have released since Is This It. It retains the energy of their debut but reflects a more mature avatar of a band that made history 20 years ago. The trademarks are intact—dual guitar interplays, Casablancas’ pleasing baritone, and the easily accessible lyrics. The addition of a hint of electronics (think synths and guitar special effects) gives it a contemporary feel that could appeal to younger fans listening to them for the first time.

Yet the album is a mixed bag. Some songs, particularly in the first half, sound so much like those on Is This It that it can be uncanny. Listen a bit more closely, however, and there is a difference. In fact, if The Strokes had jumped from Is This It to The New Abnormal, without any other albums in between, even that would have been perfect. The don’t-give-a-damn diffidence of their debut album is replaced with assured confidence but they still sound uncompromisingly committed to making good rock music. The album opener, The Adults Are Talking, could be a perfect commentary on the pandemic-induced lockdown, as could Why Are Sundays So Depressing.

The New Abnormal can best be described as The Strokes Ver 2.0, a resetting of a career that had shown much promise at the beginning but then had begun to flag. Before it won the Grammy this year, The New Abnormal had got a pitiable score of 5.7 in a review by Pitchfork, the highbrow and somewhat difficult-to-please American online music publication. Many listeners who trust that publication as a guide for their playlists may have, therefore, skipped the album. That would be a mistake. It’s a fine album, not to be missed.

There’s another reason for liking The Strokes. Despite their privileged, rich-kids-of-NYC upbringing (all five are in their early 40s now), they are an easy-going bunch who wear their fame lightly. Hammond, who wrestled with a drug problem not so long ago, talks about it in interviews with an honesty that is rare among celebrities. And last year, Casablancas partnered with Rolling Stone magazine to do a series called S.O.S.—Earth Is A Mess, in which he interviews experts, intellectuals and academicians. His guests include Henry Giroux, Amy Goodman and Andrew Young and the sessions are thought-provoking. Strokes Ver. 2.0 works.

The Lounge List

1. ‘The Adults Are Talking’ from ‘The New Abnormal’

2. ‘Why Are Sundays So Depressing’ from ‘The New Abnormal’

3. ‘Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus’ from ‘The New Abnormal’

4. ‘Is This It’ from ‘Is This It’

5. ‘The Modern Age’ from ‘Is This It’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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