Allow me to get nostalgic on you for a few moments: The Strokes were THE band of those heady years between youth and adulthood where we looked to our musical heroes for an escape from the oppression of our daily truths. College-aged and living in the shadow of 9/11, bands like The Strokes, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The White Stripes, and later the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the soundtrack to our Great Gatsby-like escape from the stories on the news, the studies we ignored, and the hangovers we nursed. Armed with our cigarettes and cooler-than-thou attitudes, we empathized with our heroes as they played without giving a damn, never once thinking that others (ahem, The Velvet Underground) had done it before with an elegance that The Strokes could never touch. As we grew out of that phase, trading in those cigarettes and bohemian ambitions for relationships and (gulp) careers, The Strokes slowly faded from view, forgetting to properly dissolve like their forbearers, and never quite caring enough to grow with their initial fan base. Instead, they were just there, like an old friend who hadn’t matured, occasionally stumbling in drunk and making a mess of things. So, with that in mind, it comes as something of a shock to see that the band’s latest album, Comedown Machine, not only plays like a cohesive album, but one where The Strokes seems to be trying to prove they were worth the hype and adoration to begin with.
It’s been a long time since The Strokes even sounded this committed to their material. The record starts out with “Tap Out,” an intriguing opening that showcases singer Julian Casablancas‘ falsetto in front of a down tempo, drum machine propelled tune. It’s an intriguing opening that features some beautiful guitar work by Albert Hammond, Jr., but it’s essentially mastering the half-assed sound of Angles. The track segues into “All the Way,” a Strokes-by-the numbers tune that sounds like an outtake from Is This It. It’s a fine song, but it screams of an obvious single, and one that is painfully void of any of the soul or passion of their earlier work. In essence, it’s everything that’s been wrong with the band since the release of their last great album, 2002′s Room on Fire.
That sinking feeling may kick in with “All the Way,” but things pick up considerably with “One Way Trigger,” a blue-eyed soul number straight from the new wave garage that feels like Casablancas is summing up adult life with lines like “find a job, find a friend, find a home” before bluntly stating “find a dream, shut it down.” It’s a solid tune, expressing the frustrations of balancing responsibility with the ever-present pull of the spotlight. Of course, the band takes those New Wave sounds and uses them to great effect on the song’s follow up, “Welcome to Japan,” which slinks and shakes its way like a long forgotten disco classic.
At this point, it’s fairly clear what’s happening with Comedown Machine. The band’s not breaking any new ground, but they are pulling together their sounds from their previous four records to create an album that can be looked at as a career summation. Cohesion is something The Strokes have failed to grasp on their last two albums, so it’s something of a relief to see them achieving that here with a record that ebbs and flows. Part of that may have to do with the band being together in the recording studio, something that had a noticeable effect on the fractured feel of their previous record, Angles. It could also have to do with this being their final album for RCA. The album does have that feel of a last act, of the band doing everything they can to play to their strengths, bringing together their best elements for one last go around.
Songs like “50/50” show the band playing with slower tempos to excellent effect. “Slow Animals” shifts from slow to fast, creating a song that may be one of their best when all is said and down. The last half of the record sounds like the band put every single trick up their sleeve into a blender and hit puree, creating a medley of what a good Strokes record should sound like. It doesn’t always work, but it hits the sweet spots enough to please longtime fans of the band. The only time Comedown Machine feels like a break away from the past is in the closer, “Call It Fate Call It Karma.” The group eschews their sound to create a gorgeous tune that sounds delightfully like something you’ve discovered in your grandfather’s record collection. It’s enough to make you wish the band had tried something like this earlier, to break away from their bullshit posturing and create a sound that was truly their own.
But, The Strokes don’t give a fuck about pleasing anybody, even themselves. To have flamed out after their first or second album would’ve been too cliché, too close to the rulebook set forth by The Velvet Underground and Television. Like that friend who still parties every night, the band’s longevity was an act of defiance, of pushing against the pressures of age and responsibility. To call Comedown Machine a comeback would be a disservice to the band. They’ve always been around and have always had the skills – they just decided to pull it together one more time, to push the band politics aside, and create a record that has the feel of those early albums. It may not hit the heights of Is This It or Room on Fire, but it at least has the general idea of those records down. And for The Strokes, being that close to greatness, even if it’s still miles away, is good enough.