The Strokes have always been indebted to the New York bands that came before them. The city is ground zero for the founding of numerous musical movements and has been claimed to be the birthplace of punk rock. The raw, melodic, and straightforward sound of their breakthrough debut, Is This It, plays like a love letter to all NYC punk genres, whether it be proto, post, or the real McCoy. Julian Casablancas has been outspoken about one New York punk band in particular, that being the Velvet Underground and front man Lou Reed. The Velvets famously incorporated the work of pop art (another form beginning in the city being discussed) icon Andy Warhol for the cover of The Velvet Underground and Nico. Taking a cue from that collaboration, The Strokes have used a painting by seminal artist Jean-Michel Basquiat for this, their novel album, The New Abnormal.
For those unfamiliar with the NYC painter, Basquiat is the epitome of the graffiti art movement, a movement indebted to hip hop culture; hip hop is, of course, an aesthetic movement that also is inherently of a New York state of mind. Utilizing an entity so foreign to their orthodox punk rock sound, yet in such a manner as to be clearly in vain of the sound as well, largely suggests The Strokes have returned from their seven-year hiatus with the mission of overhauling the movement they began their career largely influenced by. For further evidence of this, look no further than the enlistment of producer Rick Rubin. Rubin is a legend for having created the sound of License to Ill, a breakthrough that melds metal, hardcore punk, and hip hop all into one article. It goes without saying that License to Ill is the Beastie Boys’ best New York album (Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head were made while in exile in LA), which only provides further proof of the Strokes’ expedition to create a brave new sound in vain of their Big Apple forefathers.
The album begins with the surprisingly relaxed “The Adults Are Talking” with an electronic beat that sounds straight out of a Daft Punk song (Casablancas’ appearance on Random Access Memories could be another catalyst of the change found on The New Abnormal). Remarkable instrumental sections follow lyrics that rally against the elite 1% that control most wealth in the states (this makes sense given the band’s fondness for Bernie Sanders). The song is a bit reminiscent of the titular track from Comedown Machine. “Selfless” continues the newfound calm mood of the record with Julian pleading with a lover to become more of a part of his life. On it he sings, “Please don’t be long/ ‘Cause I want your love/ I don’t have love/ Without your arm/ Life is too short/ But I will live for you”. Next track “Brooklyn Bridge Chorus” sounds like an extension of “Games” from Angles. The in-demand sound of the disco-esque rhythmic keyboard part makes the song feel like it could fit on Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush. The clubbing sound of the track and fixation on the 80s also suggests a further influence of Random Access Memories; the album in question is a nostalgic recollection of 70s album rock. Lyrically, Jules seems to be reflecting on his fond impressions from the 80s and that he is now ready to make new memories. It is also worth noting Basquiat’s influence, as well as License to Ill, were both products of that decade.
“Bad Decisions” is a prototypical song by the Strokes; it sounds like it could fit right in on Is This It. There is some excellent use of chorus on the main riff to give it a new wave-like tone.“Eternal Summer” grooves in big way with hazy synths, rapping, and enormous, glacial beats that sound as if there is some definite input from Rubin. Lyrically, the song comments on the inaction of politicians to stop climate change and the resultant infinite heatwave with the lines “Summer is coming/won’t go away/ Summer is coming/ It’s here to stay” and “They got the remedy/ But they won’t let it happen”. The gravity of the situation portrayed by the lyrics is amplified with guitar dissonance. “At The Door” borders on sounding like Radiohead with desperate and anxious lyrics, as well as heavy electronics; the song is the most shocking alteration to the band’s sound on the album and features heavy production work via Rubin.
“Why Are Sunday’s So Depressing” could be the looser distant cousin of “I Can’t Win” from Room On Fire, exemplifying that this is a whole album in the style of the moody one-offs from previous albums by the Strokes. On it, Casablancas reminisces his life prior to fame; he sings “I kinda miss the nine to five/Yeah/Do those things you can’t hide”. “Not The Same Anymore” features saturnine melodies with lyrics exploring Jules’ role in the demise of many of his relationships in his life. The song could very well be influenced by his 2019 divorce. “Ode to the Mets” ends the album with a declaration of devotion to New York City (which very much confirms the thesis stated at the beginning of this review). It features a soothing feel with uplifting guitar riffs.
It is thoroughly captivating to see how the Strokes have evolved and matured over the years. They are a band many of us have grown up with, and it is hard to find someone who doesn’t like them. In someways, they are the voice and pulse of the millennial generation given their widespread influence. Released during like a time like this, a moment of crisis, they are the type of multiethnic champion we need to find hope, faith, and unity within ourselves. With its sea change in style, confluence of inspiration and piety to New York City, The New Abnormal is easily one of the best releases of the year. Consider it a must-listen.