Like most people who listen to rock music in their mid-30s, I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard the Strokes. It was sometime in the late summer of 2001, and I was maybe two weeks into my sophomore year of high school in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I was working on the family computer in our living room, with MTV2 on the background, when after a System of a Down video, the video for “Last Nite” started, and without putting too fine a point on it, I know that after that I no longer wore JNCOs and was concerned with the interplay between rhythm and lead guitar riffs in a way I definitely wasn’t beforehand. Which is to say, I’ve owned five copies of Is This It in multiple media formats.
The first time I heard The New Abnormal, the sixth LP from the Strokes, I was in the basement of my house in St. Paul, Minnesota, on my 28th day of social distancing, anxiously refreshing my Instacart order, wondering if the HyVee would have the brand of chicken strips that I like, endlessly grateful for the people who are able to make that convenience possible, especially since my immunosuppressed wife would risk life for us to try to score those strips on our own. “We can’t help it if we are the problem,” Julian Casablancas croons into my ears, as I pull down to refresh the app, watching Johnathan check out. They didn’t have the strips.
This sixth Strokes album, produced by Rick Rubin, credited to the Strokes in the songwriting for the first time ever, was almost certainly titled months ago, its release date chosen and its singles pegged, long before points around all of this. But the Strokes might be more born in this, molded by it, than any band of their cohort; they were, after all, uncomfortable and dissatisfied from the first line on the first song on their first album (the poet bard Casablancas: “Can’t you see I’m trying, I don’t even like it”). The New Abnormal is a grumpy, down-in-the-dumps album that crackles with the life that was oft-missing on the last two Strokes LPs at least, an album where the best song (“At The Door”) doesn’t even have any drums. A nostalgia trip this is not; the Strokes have been beating against the currents of their own past since at least 2002, when they hired Nigel Godrich to turn them into Radiohead, for fear that they were going to make Is This It a second time. They’ve been avoiding “returning to form” for as long as they’ve been a band, more or less, so The New Abnormal is instead a conscious relaunch of the Strokes as a concern, their best album since 2006, and one of this year’s most (only?) thought-provoking big-budget rock album.
As anyone who actually spent time with Angles can tell you, the Strokes weren’t having much fun being the Strokes when they made their last comeback, and the less we say about Comedown Machine the better. That’s pretty much confirmed in a recent interview with The Guardian, where the band dances around saying they made the albums to satisfy their contracts not because they felt great about the songs, but what’s interesting is seeing that openness slip into the lyrics too. “I was just bored, playin' the guitar / Learned all your tricks, wasn't too hard” Casablancas sings on closing ballad “Ode to the Mets,” a chopped and synthed version of that old Strokes ballad thing where the drums lock into the guitars and you can see decades of rock history unfold in front of you. “Not tryna build a dynasty,” he sings on “At The Door,” that aforementioned drumless song. Disaffected songs about being young and bothered lead to disaffected songs about being old and famous and bothered.
Insofar as there are revelations on The New Abnormal (beyond the adoption of electronics that was supposed to happen on Room on Fire … maybe this is their Nigel Godrich album) they come in Casablancas’ voice, which is stronger than it’s ever been. He can do the croon that brought them to the dance, but his falsetto on songs like “Why Are Sunday’s So Depressing,” “Eternal Summer,” and “The Adults Are Talking” has gotten more varied and richer than it was when he first started using it in what felt like a lark on previous albums. The other big change is that you can actually hear every bar here, Casablancas’ years obscuring his vocals in the Voidz replaced with a lyrical direction that makes references to past bad decisions (“Bad Decisions”), you can’t go back! regret (“Not the Same Anymore”), and wanting something, anything different despite ennui (“Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus”). There are too many bars here ready for late night thirst traps, desperate Quarancontent, and your Tumblr in 2014 to list, just know that “Ode to the Mets” has at least 15 of them.
When the Strokes blew up in 2001, short as their window may have been, they represented the idea that this — whether it was the music on the radio, or the overly dumb clothes we were all wearing before them — was dumb, it was boring, and it could be so much better. That almost 20 years on, that message could be the same isn’t so much a testament to them, but to how sideways the last two decades have gone for everyone, the band included. Then, as now: Real life sucks, but at least there’s the Strokes.