The Strokes return, unbound, on The New Abnormal
Sometimes there's just magic in the moment. When the Strokes first stumble-swaggered into fame nearly two decades ago, they hardly seemed primed for breakfast before 2 p.m., let alone immortality. Their defiantly lo-fi videos beamed like dispatches from some lost cable-access frequency; their clothes were a thrift-store freebie pile; even the name of their debut, Is This It, came on like a cool-kid shrug, so offhandedly blasé it couldn’t be bothered with the implied question mark.
To a world still reeling from the aftershocks of 9/11, though, that record, with its blown-speaker fuzz and shaggy, sweetly laconic melodies, felt like a revelation. Frontman Julian Casablancas sighing at the wizened age of 23, “In many ways/Still miss the good old days” over the kick-drum clatter of “Someday” was undoubtedly a nod to his own nostalgia for guitar heroes gone by, from the Ramones to the Velvet Underground. But it also seemed to speak to a larger urge to get back to something rawer and more real than the stuff clogging the pop charts. (The bestselling artists of 2001? Grim rap-rock behemoths Linkin Park; Shaggy had a big year too.)
Maybe there’s some kind of full-circle symmetry to the band returning on the verge of another national nervous breakdown — whole cities shuttered; the future of everything suddenly, drastically uncertain. The name of their first album since 2013’s Comedown Machine, at least, couldn’t be more fitting: The New Abnormal. And once more, they seem to have tapped into a collective consciousness; galloping opener “The Adults Are Talking ” paints a cryptic cautionary tale, low-grade dread with a killer bass line. “Selfless” unfurls like a spiraling psych-rock lullaby; “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” dances between manic glam-rock theatrics and squiggly disco.
Nearly every refrain on the shimmery, falsettoed “Eternal Summer” — “I can’t believe it, this is the eleventh hour,” “They got the remedy but they won’t let it happen” — takes on eerie new shades of circa-COVID-19 panic.
Twenty years on from the band’s first flush of stardom, they represent, in retrospect, maybe the last true spark of rock & roll as a marker of cultural currency. The few acts today finding even modest mainstream success in the slim margins left between contemporary pop and hip-hop tend to do so largely by trading in old tropes and timeworn nostalgia. Early on, of course, the Strokes and their peers earned those same critiques, their sound a knowing pastiche of past alt and indie icons. But they also connected to the zeitgeist in a way that today’s major-label calculations rarely seem to. As did the group’s indelible image: a scruffy quintet whose careless air of sex and cigarettes telegraphed the idealized romance of an already vanishing New York bohemia. (Was anyone ever so young and so weary? Maybe, though to paraphrase Dolly Parton, it takes a lot of effort to look that indifferent.) But if all five members are now circling early midlife, grown men with kids and mortgages, they don’t sound any less urgent for it. Abnormal offers something even better, possibly, than reckless youth: rock stars finally old enough to truly miss those good old days — and wise enough now, too, to give us the soundtrack these strange new times deserve. A–