Native New Yorkers, The Strokes are back with their best album since Room on Fire. Coincidental or not, The New Abnormal could be one of the most apt and timely album titles in recent music history, in what is turning out to be a pivotal period in the story of humanity. Some could argue that the world was hardly normal anyways, long before these crazy few months. Perhaps their title is a simple recognition of the ongoing absurdity that we all find ourselves in, and have done for quite some time.
This is their first studio release since the indifferent Comedown Machine in 2013, and on this occasion, legendary producer Rick Rubin is at the controls. The Strokes have gone for broke with this move, in the hope that Rubin can sprinkle some of his magic onto this, their sixth album. The band have been very tight-lipped about their new material, letting the songs do the talking this time around when they are officially unleashed to the public. This was evident at their recent February gig in Belfast, where the audience were only treated to two spins from The New Abnormal.
Despite appearing on-stage at the presidential rally for Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire in February, this album doesn’t sound explicitly politicised. But, I guess The Strokes have always been able to get their message across in a more subtle fashion. If anything, the album is littered with personal stories about regret, reflection and remorse.
The opener ‘The Adults Are Talking’ and latest single ‘Bad Decisions’ are classic Strokes – rapid-fire, electrically charged and instantly memorable. Despite the energy within the music and the iconic guitar strokes of Valensi and Hammond Jr, both songs make reference to the quiet subconscious when we sleep – “You were saying all the words I was dreaming” / Always singing in my sleep, I will leave it in my dreams…”
Valensi’s guitar solo in ‘Selfless’ is exquisite in one of the slower, more reflective and lovingly grateful offerings from Casablancas – “Life is too short but I will live for you”. ‘Not the Same Anymore’ is also in the same, introspective vein – “I was afraid, I fucked up / I couldn’t change, it was too late / Another door slams shut, the child prisoner grows up”.
‘Eternal Summer’ has echoes of The Clash and you can almost smell the melting tarmac from the Lower East Side Manhattan streets. The menace in the lyrics, rip through this track – “I need a friendly face / don’t expect the truth / your silence is no longer needed, it’s just like make-believe / Psychedelic, life is such a funny journey”.
‘Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus’ is a funky throwback, underlining the ever-present respect that the band have always had for the post-punk, new wave movement of the 1980s. The last track on the album, ‘Ode to the Mets’ has a title that is steeped in New York sporting grandeur, however, in typical Strokes fashion, the lyrics don’t mirror the song name at all. The song itself is a momentum-built climax to the end of the album with Casablancas’s voice breaking with defiance on the bridge – “I was just bored playing the guitar, learned all your tricks, wasn’t too hard”.
One of the musical puzzles regarding The Strokes is the fact that they were, even at their peak of fame, were more revered in Europe than they ever were in their Stateside home. Could this album see a new surge of adoration for The Strokes? – perhaps.
In her 2017 book, ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’, Lizzie Goldman attributed much of the re-birth of New York’s alternative rock music scene in the early 2000s to The Strokes. This could indeed be the right time for the second coming of Casablancas and co. The New Abnormal contains NYC grit, soul and substance in abundance, something that The Strokes have struggled to find since Room on Fire. In their blistering opener, Casablancas sings, “Hard to get your attention, climbing up your walls.” As we continue to climb the walls, at least for the foreseeable future, I don’t think it will be difficult for the revitalised Strokes to get our attention at all. Welcome back, boys!