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Review: The Strokes – The New Abnormal

Regardless of their dedicated fan base and well-liked albums of the 2010s, The Strokes entered the new decade with a reputation for splintered friendships and uncooperative media performances. Their last two albums, 2011’s Angles and 2013’s Comedown Machine, were accompanied by a media blackout and the latter recorded without the band ever being in the same room. But with new energy from a new united front, and a range of live shows and festival appearances in the past two years, another album has been on the horizon for the Strokes since the EP Future Present Past.  

From the opening of The New Abnormal, with the strong beat and pizzicato electric guitar of “The Adults Are Talking”, it is clear that the band can still tap into something special. The nine tracks – three of which were released as singles – do not possess the energy and punch of The Strokes in the early 2000s, but who would expect them to? A lot of time has passed since their iconic Is This It youth. It’s not just the band who have tired, but also the scene into which they release their music. The tracks occupy a sweet space of aged sound alongside new energy. “Bad Decisions”, a rewriting of the Billy Idol 1981 hit “Dancing With Myself” – encapsulates the nostalgia that Casablancas’ songwriting and Hammond’s riffs straddle between the 80s and 2020. In the context of the song, their implicit “bad decisions” are straying away from the sound their fans enjoy, but here this nostalgia is often the source of their strength. “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus”, the third single on the album, follows Casablancas reminiscing about the “eighties bands” of his past: “ and the ‘80s song, yeah, how did it go? / When they said, ‘This is the beginning of the best years’.”.  “Eternal Summer”, is a Talking Heads-esque tune with a gutsy chorus: “I can’t believe it/ Life is such a funny journey/ Psychedelic / This is the eleventh hour”.

Another key feature of this album is its politics. The first official single, “Bad Decisions”, was premiered with a live performance at Bernie Sanders’ New Hampshire primary rally. Casablancas, a loud and ardent Bernie supporter for the part two election cycles, sneaks his anti-capitalist ambitions into his lyrics, alike to the grizzlier songs of The Voidz. “Eternal Summer” is a commentary on aspects of late-stage capitalism. In an interview with the LA Times, Casablancas revealed that the album title references climate change, quoting California Governor Jerry Brown’s response to Malibu fires in 2018. A ‘new abnormal’ also feels very fitting to the lockdown triggered by the coronavirus crisis across the world: we live in a ‘new abnormal’.

The album art can also be read as its own political statement. Bird on Money, a 1981 artwork by fellow New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, pays tribute to the jazz musician Charlie Parker, continuing the nostalgic theme. Basquiat was famous for his depiction of dichotomies of wealth, class, and race in 80s New York. In evoking his work, The Strokes hide another  ambition for this album.

The rebellious high-pitched tracks of the album’s first half give way to a slower, more melancholy nostalgia towards the end. “Not the Same Anymore” and “Ode to the Mets” stare back to their earlier years. The quiet and bleak guitars and synthesizer back the drowsy verses: “I was just bored/ Playing the guitar/ Learned all your tricks/ Wasn’t too hard.” But for the outro, loud instrumentation and an impassioned voice returns: a new-found source of energy, letting us know that there is still more music left in The Strokes to bring into this ‘new abnormal’ world.