With the release of 2001’s Is This It, The Strokes incited garage rock’s second coming. Heralded as one of the world’s most ambitious debuts to date, it was ranked as the album of the decade by NME, and as one of the top albums of all time by Rolling Stone. The half-hour of passionate guitar play, intentional percussion, and lyrics transmuted through distorted vocals you’d hear slurred at the other end of a late-night (or early morning) phone call, filled a gap that had been laid open since their punk predecessors transformed the music landscape of the ’70s.
As if the music wasn’t enough, they also happened to be tall with great hair, have intriguing names and a hard-to-replicate aura — a sort of New York City swagger and distinguishable Lower East Side cool that made kids all over the world scour Goodwill stores and abstain from washing their hair in hopes of one day embodying that vibe. The revival we’d all been hoping for was officially here, and it was outfitted in vintage tees and torn skinny jeans, draped in a second-hand jacket, and drinking you under the table at a bar on Avenue A.
I still recall driving through the suburbs in my blue Chevy Metro, Casablancas' words playing through the speakers as I listened to each lyric meditatively, trying to blur out the palm trees, replacing them with high rises, trading the jacked-up trucks for taxi cabs. I let the songs soundtrack my adolescent daydreams of what I hoped would be a grimier, more inclusive, and less stifling existence. I held on tight to the steering wheel and the hope that being “raised in Carolina” wouldn’t preclude me from one day haunting the streets of Manhattan in my own pursuit of things that are “Hard to Explain.”
Much like Arctic Monkeys’ frontman Alex Turner admits in the opening lines of “Star Treatment”, in the early aughts, we all “just wanted to be one of The Strokes.”
But, with the commercial success of their debut came the pressure to strike gold (and Platinum) again. The five childhood friends from Manhattan had initiated a cultural and sonic shift, but their meteoric, stylish, and seemingly effortless revival of garage rock had happened at such breakneck speed, everyone was wondering if it was sustainable. As journalist Marc Spitz shared in Lizzy Goodman’s oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom, “The world was watching the movement to see if it was bullshit.”
Even the critics who rested on the band’s privileged backgrounds as their key complaint couldn’t deny the underlying question behind their sentiment: Just who exactly did The Strokes think they were? And how did they become that so quickly? The pessimism of naysayers, however, was quickly offset by the music. It was simple without being blasé, thoughtful without being pretentious, it was inspired but not derivative. In short: It was quintessential rock and roll.
Now that rock and roll had been resurrected, The Strokes were tasked with the difficult deed of keeping it on life support, and it seemed like nearly everyone was waiting to watch the cool kids pull the plug and reveal they were incapable of finishing what they’d started. So, in 2003, instead of nursing the hangovers brought on by the constant press and gigs of touring their debut on the world’s stage, the band got right back into the studio, this time with something to prove.
Initially, the band brought on Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, but that dalliance lasted a mere 10 days. According to Casablancas, "Nigel made it sound clean, but it was soulless.” So, after tossing the versions of “Meet Me in The Bathroom” and “Automatic Stop” they’d recorded with Godrich, the prodigal sons made their way home to Gordon Raphael, the same producer who’d produced their debut. They recorded the 11-track, 32-minute album in less than three months, and on October 28, 2003, it was released.
Like the auditory acceleration that pulls you into album opener “Whatever Happened,” there was an urgency underlying their process, a tempo driven by their desire for survival. As Casablancas told NME in retrospect, “Room On Fire had this kind of ‘If we don’t put out a record quick our careers are over’ thing.”
Despite offering an album that could easily square up to and win against any of its contemporaries, the critical consensus was that Room on Fire was just a replica of Is This It, with Pitchfork commenting, ”NYC's finest have all but given birth to an identical twin.”
It’s impossible to say how the album would’ve been received if they’d tampered with their sound and fixed something that wasn’t broken, but it would’ve likely drawn similar complaints. That damned-if-you-don’t-or-do scenario wasn’t lost on Hammond, who shared in “Meet Me in The Bathroom,” “With Room on Fire, people were giving us shit because they said we were sounding too much the same. With the third album, we were getting shit that we don’t sound like Room on Fire. We got fucked by the same thing twice!”
Even fans, in our eagerness to worship them, had thrust impossible standards on The Strokes. Journalist Ben Thompson put it succinctly in his review of the record for the Guardian while referencing the lyrics “So many fish there in the sea / She wanted him / He wanted me” from the track, “Automatic Stop”: “If any of us fans, listeners and hype-merchants — with our absurd demands that The Strokes mean more than they can and thereby achieve less than they should — find ourselves wondering about the identity of that notional needy girlfriend, we should probably try looking in the mirror.”
Perhaps the expectation was that they’d stick to the sophomore album playbook, come off the road, and record stadium anthems in hopes of filling arenas on the next go-round. What they did instead, however, was level up the technicality of their playing, as evident in the boisterous, “Reptilia,” which in name and energy references the “reptilian” part of your brain responsible for primitive drives like hunger, thirst, sexuality, and impulsivity. They leaned into experimentation with sound as well, lest we forget Valensi’s guitar-mimicking keyboards as he’s “fucking around with jazz tones” on “12:51.”
When they weren’t quickening our heartbeats to syncopate with Moretti’s high-paced drumming in “The End Has No End,” there was a respite in Casablancas’ crooning “We were young, darlin' / We don’t have no control” in the soulful Motown-Esque ballad “Under Control.” The album also scrutinizes and eulogizes the ups and downs of romantic relationships through the oft-repeated, “I never needed anybody” in “Between Love & Hate” or the confession of “It's not your fault, that's the way it is / I'm sick of you, and that's the way it is” on “The Way It Is.”
Then there’s one of my personal favorites, the melodic “Meet Me In The Bathroom” with its easy-to-echo chorus of “‘Meet me in the bathroom’ / that's what she said / I don't mind, it's true” which, I’m happy to report, still commands a sing-along whether it’s played live at a sold-out Brooklyn venue or crackling through a record player speaker in a music writer’s East Village studio apartment.
The Strokes gave us a quick, lean joy ride that was just as ambitious, and just as essential as their first album, and it would have made the impact it deserved if it hadn’t been for one glaring issue. Room on Fire could never be the best album of that era because Is This It had already taken that designation.
There were reasons outside of the album’s contents that impacted its reception. The band’s second offering coincided with a changing of guards in the music industry. Sales of physical album copies were dwindling while illegal downloads reigned supreme. And, as RCA executive Richard Sanders shared with Billboard in 2003, there had never been a real marketing plan for The Strokes, acknowledging that “a lot of what sells The Strokes is word-of-mouth and that all starts with people hearing the music.” That being said, the question of whether or not they should’ve led with Clive Davis’ choice of “12:51” as the lead single and album’s first listen is still up for debate. It’s also fair to mention that their inadvertent celebrity seemed to be stealing some of the limelight.
Casablancas was drunk and kissing journalists. Hammond was dabbling in pills and opiates. And mixed in with the constant conversation around whether they were worth the hype, the press seemed more keen to chat about their antics and high-profile relationships than their music.
Was their ambivalence to fame and “New York cool” aloofness that had been so magnetic at first now driving dangerously close to jaded apathy? At the time, it all seemed to be an inevitable result of rock stardom, but in hindsight, it was likely a reaction to who they were now expected to be running up against in their earnest desire to create at the level they knew they were capable of. As Hammond told Spin in 2006, “Looking back on it, Room on Fire just felt like a bunch of guys that were a little too cocky but at the same time really shy. That’s a bad balance.”
The record takes its name from the climactic line of the high-octane guitar duel “Reptilia,” as Casablancas cries out, “the room is on fire as she’s fixing her hair,” a raspy revelation on the hazards of indifference. English artist Peter Phillips’s painting, “War/Game” acts as the album’s cover art. The checkered work, inspired by the American civil war, depicts the closeness of opposing forces: good and bad, love and hate — a comment on the dichotomy of human experience. Their choice in both album art and title points to the truth of that moment for them. Yes, all eyes were on The Strokes. But as the acute awareness embedded in each track bears witness to, they were also clearly watching themselves.
Their second album not only remarks on how they were changing, but how the world was changing around them. From the outside, it may have all looked like detached fun, but as Casablancas clarified to Vulture in 2018, “the title is not referring to a dance party. It’s referring to the state of things.”
Some music does not age well, and some music doesn’t age at all. Room On Fire falls into the latter category. If not for its sound, which nearly two decades later, still elicits wide-eyed adulation, but for its subject matter. From the opening lyrics “I want to be forgotten / and I don’t want to be reminded” to the refrain of “I Can’t Win” on the closing track, the album is an acknowledgment of a perception shift, a nod to that feeling of finally getting what you thought you wanted, and realizing (for better or worse) that it’s nothing like you expected.