Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Strokes' "Comedown Machine" Brings a Bit of the Old and a Bit of the New

When The Strokes' 4th album, Angles, came out in 2011, it was after months and months of anticipation on my part.  After all, this was one of my favorite bands, responsible for the millennial masterpiece Is This It and the almost as brilliant Room on Fire.  The last time we'd heard from them was 2006's First Impressions of Earth, a great but bloated album that showed the band sloughing off some of its vintage scuzz for a slicker sound.  Many fans and critics felt less positive toward First Impressions of Earth than I did, so the release of Angles was not only looked upon as a return from a 5 year gap, but also an opportunity for the band to make a "comeback" and prove that they weren't another product of the derelict New York rock revival scene of the early 2000s.

Naturally, the album was never going to hold up to such a weight of expectation.  I liked Angles quite a bit when it first came out.  There were some botched ideas on there ("Call Me Back") but songs like "Under Cover of Darkness" and "Taken For a Fool" were some of the best material the band's ever produced.  Despite all of that, by the time the end of the year rolled around, the album failed to make my top 20.  In the two years that have passed since the album's release, I find myself rarely ever revisiting it, especially the lesser songs.  Often, I find myself wondering why the album had such little impact and a part of me does feel like it's because of the burden of the idea of the "comeback."  Angles is a good album, it's just not "first album in 5 years" good.

So maybe Comedown Machine is more enjoyable simply because there was less pressure surrounding this release, both from fans and the band.  Coming merely two years after Angles, there's less of a sense that the world was feverishly clamoring for a new Strokes album.  The band did very little press before the release of this album and it almost felt like Comedown Machine was quietly placed into the world, especially compared to the huge buzz that surrounded each of their previous albums.  Even I -- a superfan -- was just thinking of it as "another Strokes album."  This allowed for it to be listened to not as an event, but as just an album.

Perhaps all of this theorizing is useless and the reason Comedown Machine works so well is because it's a better, more interesting album.  The Strokes have always been traditionalists, but here we see the band begin to stretch their boundaries a bit.  Structurally, they don't deviate from the classic verse-chorus-solo format, but sonically the band jumps between various influences.  The highlight of the album is "Welcome to Japan," which is perhaps the most purely danceable song they've ever made, starting out as a slick and slinky rocker before hitting its surging new wave chorus.  Elsewhere, Julian Casablancas displays his talent for writing ballads with "Chances," a moody synth-heavy song that allows him to show off his impressive vocal range.  But perhaps the most interesting and different song on the album is the closer, "Call It Fate, Call It Karma," which feels and sounds like it exists within that moment between dreaming and consciousness.  Not all of the band's attempts to change things up are a complete success though.  "One Way Trigger" is catchy enough, but eventually becomes too chirpy, and "80s Comedown Machine" could stand to be a minute shorter.

Luckily, the rest of the album finds the band navigating their comfort zone with the same aplomb and precision that they've become known for.  I've always described their sound as "five perfect things happening all at once," and the album's two opening songs, "Tap Out" and "All the Time" recall that classic Strokes tightness.  Both are dynamic songs, the probing bass in lockstep with the workmanlike drums giving each of them a strong rhythm to support the indelible melodies.  Meanwhile, "50/50," an absolute barn-burner of a song, is all rough edges and Casablancas even uses his old school vocal filter on the song.  Somehow, the band has always managed to create songs that at once feel familiar and fresh at the same time, recalling a nostalgia for something that one has never actually felt.  In that way, these songs are something of a comfort and the album grows on you the more you listen to it.

More than anything though, this album feels like the first truly fun Strokes album.  Even at their best, the band always had a layer of chilly remove from the songs they were producing.  Although it added to the mystique of the band, it could be easy for some to find their songs cold and mechanical.  You wouldn't find that here, as the band manages to keep that innate cool while adding a sense of warm looseness to the proceedings as well.  Songs like "Slow Animals " and "Partners in Crime" are just a blast to listen to, with soaring choruses that are as catchy and fun as anything you'll hear from The Strokes.  "Happy Endings," throws everything at the wall and sees what sticks and miraculously, everything does.  Handclaps, video game-esque guitars, and a "baby baby" chorus litter the song, yet it never falters under the weight of it's own goofiness.  It doesn't sound anything like the band that put out the often labored Angles just two years ago.

That's a good thing too, because I was genuinely worried that Angles would be the band's last album after hearing about all of the behind the scenes details surrounding it.  With reports of Julian Casablancas recording his parts separately from the rest of the group and Nick Valensi stating that they had "a better album in them," it seemed like the boys were tired and really, who could blame them?  They were hailed as the saviors of rock and roll at the turn of the century and they released a debut album so classic that everything afterward has been deemed a minor disappointment.  With Comedown Machine, their final album under their RCA contract, it seems as if the band is at the start of the second act of their career, one where they settle into quietly making great albums without the pressure of having to churn out a masterpiece.

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