From the moment Is This It? dropped in 2001 The Strokes’s retrofitted sonic palette appeared destined to be the musical equivalent to the law of diminishing returns – factor of production (i.e., more albums) while other factors held constant (i.e., the band’s sound) then returns would diminish.
“Is This It?” erected a monument to bored, disenfranchised, effortlessly cool garage rock so immediate, so timeless, so staggering that it promised to cast a shadow over all the NYC quintet’s future recordings. Their trajectory seemed clear. Imagine a graph where the first line touches the ceiling, and all subsequent lines are jockeying, in vain, to stand as tall.
And yet The Strokes’ career has confounded convention despite the band’s seeming unwillingness to experiment. Sophomore album Room On Fire proved a worthy successor to Is This It? Third album First Impressions of Earth lacked inspiration for the most part but fourth album Angles recaptured some of the old, drunk at 4 in the morning Strokesian spirit that existed, ya know, before the band members had wives and children.
Their fifth album, Comedown Machine, doesn’t hit stores for another month, but if “One Way Trigger” and “All The Time” – the first two tracks released – are any indication, this could be the album where the law of diminishing returns kicks into high gear for the Strokes. If that’s the case, The Strokes should retire after Comedown Machine – at least as a studio outfit – rather than continue to recycle from their past albums and drift toward irrelevance.
About the aforementioned tracks …
“One Way Trigger” received a slew of comparisons to A-Ha’s “Take On Me” after its January release. The Strokes, it seemed, had finally embraced the 80s by ripping off one of the decade’s most recognizable tunes. The band’s A-Ha thievery is far from my chief complaint with “One Way Trigger”. That (dis)honor would go to Julian, or should I say Juliana?, Casablancas’s unintelligible, strained falsetto. It’s an irritating mess that obscures his gift for writing drunk, happenstance poetry.
Comedown Machine’s first single “All The Time” lacks the earworm quality that made Angles’s first single “Under Cover Of Darkness” such a delight. Casablancas’s vocals once again sound thrown together and garbled, in particular the chorus. Musically, this track borrows from the same garage pop playbook as much of the band’s catalog, right down to Nick Valensi’s guitar solo. It lacks any semblance of freshness – I know, an odd thing to say about a band whose music always leaned heavily toward a revisionist bent.
I thought the point of releasing songs in advance centered around generating favorable buzz. These two songs pointed me in a more apathetic direction about Comedown Machine. In one respect, the band feels like a tribute to itself, albeit a tired one. It also feels like a cover band replicating a song that did not need covering. It’s funny, and a touch sad, how seven minutes of music from this band, of all bands, could leave me asking “Is this it?”
Listen: “All The Time”