The Strokes – Comedown Machine
However you feel about Angles, there’s no doubt it lowered expectations for the Strokes. The five years that separated First Impressions Of Earth and that album were filled with solo records and side projects, speculation and anticipation. When that record was revealed to be a decent, if unsatisfying, set, the following two-year wait for their next record was weirdly silent. The Strokes were past their prime, the media collectively concluded, and Comedown Machine was released to little fanfare. The Strokes are no longer the best or most talked-about band in the world anymore—far from it—and, as evidenced by this record, it sounds like they agree. Comedown Machine is filled with lyrics about confusion, regret, aging and settling down. And as the title implies, there’s a sense of deflation at work here, the group resigning themselves to the fact that their glory days have passed them. In other words, where Julian Casablancas once implored, “Please don’t slow me down if I’m going too fast,” he now admonishes that “you’re living too fast.” As such, it’s the softest, most contemplative Strokes album yet, one that sometimes sounds like an entirely different band.
Reuniting with Angles producer Gus Oberg, the band continues their ’80s fascination here—something no doubt fostered by Casablancas, whose solo album favored a new-wave, synth bounce—but it’s somewhat of a double-edged sword. On one side, the Strokes are usually sterling revivalists, since they refuse to shed their own voice in service of retro worship. “Tap Out” and the shuffling “Partners In Crime” come up winners, but it’s “One Way Trigger,” with its a-ha-inspired keyboard line and falsetto vocals, that’s the most memorable, mostly because it’s one of the oddest things the group’s ever done. It’s tuneful yet challenging, designed to make fans uncomfortable the way “Juicebox” did back in 2006, though it’s doesn’t reach the furious heights of that track. And that brings me to the other side of the equation. The Strokes fuss and experiment a lot on this album, but they haven’t written a set of songs strong enough to justify their stylistic diversions. Their ’80s fetish ends up dragging the record down on a few occasions, particularly in the second half, yet even the best songs here don’t feel as fresh or as compulsively replayable as the highlights from any other Strokes record. Part of this is the songwriting, yes, but it’s also the band’s new habit of playing as precisely as possible. They’re all still phenomenally talented musicians; it’s just that their airtight, professional arrangements don’t allow for, say, Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr.’s guitars to flower into an unexpected duel of solos. It’s a problem compounded by Oberg’s polished production, which, while accentuating some of the hooks, ends up taking the bite out of many of the messier tracks, like the blustery “50/50,” that call out for some room to breathe. Plus, he still makes the odd, unfortunate choice of obscuring Casablancas’ voice in the mix, losing one of the Strokes’ most vital aspects in the process. Sometimes, the band hits it right, creating two great spins on their signature sound on “All The Time” and “Welcome To Japan,” and the risk-taking pays off with the wistful, torchy “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” and the hypnotic “80s Comedown Machine,” which lives up to the promise of First Impressions‘ “Ask Me Anything.” All of the flitting around reveals a band in transition, unsure of what kind of music they want to make going forward. But that’s just making excuses for a record that could, even should, be better than it is. (First Impressions is just as uneven, but there are far more tracks worth returning to on that album.) Despite the resignation on display on Comedown Machine, it doesn’t sound like they’ve given up, so here’s hoping that the Strokes can figure out what works before it’s too late.