Isn’t the next big thing simply the next banal thing hiding in plain sight, waiting to make bad on its best promises?
After a daring debut album and a mostly dazzling but slightly shopworn follow-up, that act will inevitably wear out its welcome and stomp all over its burgeoning legend, fast. Some chase the dragon of that success, or break up, or stop and wait before moving out of that shadow. They may make daft or dull solo albums — including the drummer, damn it, even the drummer! — that their audience couldn’t care less about. Or they may get a chance to relive that twilight’s first gleaming, with their freshest album since their start.
If you’re the Strokes, you do all of the above.
The darlings of NYC’s Avenue A at the end of the ’90s (mere minutes before Brooklyn became the place to be) updated their beloved Velvet Underground’s metronomic thud and allowed sneer-er/lyricist Julian Casablancas to checklist the nastiest bits from Lou Reed’s scene-y, shadowy noir without missing the romanticism or further mussing his already stylishly mussed hair. That’s 2001’s “Is This It,” in a nutshell. That also happens to be 2020’s “The New Abnormal,” in another, shinier, salvation-seeking nutshell.
Calling an album “The New Abnormal” is probably meant to have the same zeitgeist-y disposition to the mess that is this moment as the fashionably dissolute and dissatisfied “Is This It” had toward its time. Yet the cascading melodies and Casablancas’ lyrical mix of pragmatism and hope tells the listener something quite different, and in zestier, glossier manners than ever before.
“Can the dark side light my way out?” asks Casablancas on “Selfless,” mere seconds before he answers his own question, summing up the new album’s lyrical vibe: “Yeah.”
Even when Casablancas toys with endgames and elegy on the album’s synth-phonic closer, “Ode to the Mets,” there is forward motion after the laughter and the forgetting. “The old ways at the bottom / The ocean now has swallowed / The only thing that’s left is us / So pardon the silence that you’re hearing.”
Those lyrics suggest a desire to eschew the past, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a prevalent sense of soulful reminiscence throughout “The New Abnormal.” The soic foundation of the album has the band reveling in recollection, with glee. Still intact since 1998 (with Casablancas joined by Nikolai Fraiture, Albert Hammond Jr., Fabrizio Moretti and Nick Valensi), the Strokes find creature comfort in their teen dream, and chew on its influence like dogs happily ravaging a meaty bone, then displaying the shorn, shiny carcass.
With its smart, clipped synths and clean, curly guitars, the new wave-y “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” asks the musical question, “And the ’80’s song, yeah how did it go?… And the ’80s bands, where did they go?”
The ’80s go to roost, hard, in “The New Abnormal,” with the album’s musical nods to Danceteria-era, glossy British dance-punk, not to mention its cover painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984’s “Bird on Money,” itself a tribute to the raucous spirit of bop master Charlie Parker. You can almost picture them in their fuzzy-haired, upper-crusty adolescence listening to the Cars and the Human League.
The sleek past, reclaimed for the present, is a palette for the Strokes to create the band’s bluntest and most contagious — yet experimental — work. Credit can be shared with their new producer, Rick Rubin, a new studio atmosphere in sunny Malibu, and Casablancas taking the instrumental lead on keyboards. That’s a talent he undertook on the Strokes’ aptly titled 2011 album “Angles,” then refined with his oddball, synth-skronky solo project, the Voidz.
Two tracks, in particular, move from the group being enriched by their influences into full-blown interpolation, as the writing credits betray.
“Bad Decisions,” with its yelped vocals, prancing rhythm and taut instrumentation, sounds like a cross between Modern English’s “I Melt with You” and Generation X’s “Dancing with Myself,” complete with the latter’s “uh-uh-uh-a-oh” bridge from spiky icon Billy Idol. Before you think the Strokes have transgressed and owe Idol money, check the fine print: Idol and Tony James are named as co-authors of the new track.
Several songs later, during the Minneapolis-inspired pop-funk of “Eternal Summer,” while Casablancas moves dramatically from a teetering falsetto to a nasal dip, the song’s chorus breathes heavily the air of “The Ghost in You” from the Psychedelic Furs. Magically, the Furs’ brothers Richard and Timothy Butler also appear as co-songwriters.
It’s a fascinating bit of appropriation for the Strokes, in that these steals show off a warm embrace of from whence the quintet came.
The rest of “The New Abnormal” doesn’t indulge in quite such flagrant cribbing, even if its heart is in a similar place and time.
“The Adults Are Talking” and the aforementioned “Selfless” start off slow and stately, speed their way to finale with wet, picked guitars and snapped snares, and feature Casablancas at his most understated, whispery and teasing. He coolly under-sings, then rope-a-dopes his way to a quaint, faint falsetto end on “Adults” and a dramatic flip on “Selfless.”
More so than the rest of the Strokes, Casablancas sounds as if he’s having a hammy, exploratory ball, something he pushes to its most theatrical limit with “At the Door.” Here, the slow, souped-up Farfisa buzzes and whirrs of his instrumental contributions give him room to croon tremblingly and convincingly like a cheesy lounge singer. “My thoughts — such a mess,” he sings, in a glad-to-be-unhappy moan. “Like a little boy.”
But the song is the Strokes at their fussiest, so this is the very best cheese and, with that, the album’s sweetest, most memorable melody. It goes on a little too long, and the band seems to meander, but it works.
That same lounge singer appears, overemphasizing his vocal fry at the end of each phrase, on the spy-theme-like “Not the Same Anymore,” with Casablancas elongating lines such as “You make a better window than a door” with weirdo glee. The guy’s a real scenery chewer.
Nothing, though, is as slick and theatrical as the melancholy melody of “Ode to The Mets.” In this elegant, odd finale to a sharp-kicking album, Casablancas and company open their arrangements to something blooping and amorphous and give the singer free reign to roam. From glowering to growling, from monotone to octave jumping, Casablancas offers threats and promises alike in lines such as “I’m gonna find out the truth when I get back,” creating a spooky mystery ending for such a direct, flashy album.
If this is the Strokes’ new abnormal, here’s hoping they never look back.