For today's review, we've opted for a transcript of a discussion on The Strokes' new album from two of our resident album reviewers, Blake and Nate rather than a straightforward review.
Blake Bartholomew: So Nate, The New Abnormal. Sixth studio album by The Strokes
Nate Crater II: The New Abnormal.
BB: I don’t know about you, but the first thing that struck me was the oddly prescient album title. They announced it several weeks before North America went into full-on lockdown but once everyone started getting laid-off and sent home, the buzz word became “The New Normal.”
NC: Yeah pretty spot on.
BB: It’s a prophecy with about a 30 day lead time, but not bad.
NC: My first reaction to the album was to the cover art, which snips out a block of Basquiat’s Bird On Money. I said to myself, “How much did they pay for that thing?”
BB: That combined with Rick Rubin’s exorbitant consultation premiums, TNA shaping up to be an expensive production.
NC: Don’t get me started on Rick Rubin.
BB: Oh, I fully plan on getting you started. But maybe not until later. The point I want to make about the Basquiat right now is that given The Strokes affinity for ripping off Lou Reed, it makes sense that they’d eventually align themselves with a vogue New York Painter. Lou had Warhol, The Strokes want Basquiat.
NC: True. New Yorkers are closely tied to the art scene.
BB: Nate have you received your SMACK press kit with the vinyl copy of TNA yet?
NC: No not yet.
BB: You’ll have to let me know if the Bird peels off, like the banana on original vinyl copies of The Velvet Underground and Nico.
NC: The next thing I noticed surveying the album was how long the songs are.
BB: Yes that was alarming. Especially “Endless Summer”, which I think outstays its welcome by about 4 minutes.
NC: I thought that the longer song format came out of a concerted effort to have a verse chorus and bridge.
BB: We can probably chalk that up to Rick Rubin. I also thought it came from the extensive use of drum machines. Having a drummer that doesn’t get tired makes it a lot easier to stretch out the songs. That’s the first thing that comes from the music on TNA, the drums on “The Adults Are Talking.”
NC: I was immediately reminded of one of my favourite Strokes songs “The Way It Is” for completely opposite reasons. “The Adults Are Talking” doesn’t have that punchy, distorted rhythm. TNA instead sounds suspiciously clean.
BB: They’ve been plugging their guitars directly into the interface lately too, which gives everything a hi-fi sound.
NC: A vacuum-sealed sound.
BB: Exactly. What I’m not feeling with the drum machines is how it quantizes everything and gets rid of minute variations in tempo. It’s an odd choice because Fabrizio Moretti is a good drummer. I’ve always felt the strongest element of the band was the twin guitar lines but when the guitars are synced with drum machines they lose some of the thrill that comes with instruments trying to keep pace with each other.
NC: I agree. It ends up sounding too robotic. Especially on the guitar interplay. It’s kind of cliché now, but in the age of auto-tune and quantizing, rock music lacks those little imperfections that give it life.
BB: That’s especially noticeable for long-time listeners where the first couple albums went out of their way to make everything sound really rough, what with the filtered vocals and tinny drums. Not to mention the way their stylist dressed them to look particularly disheveled. Now they’ve cleaned up all those striking imperfections but still playing a similar guitar-based rock.
NC: I don’t want to say it was grating on the ears… but as a fan it was a little grating.
BB: I know it’s a stupid thing for us to go into an album expecting an artist to fulfill pre-conceived expectations of them, but ever since Is This It The Strokes have been trying to live up to the hype. Once they took away that ruffian, rock ’n’ roll façade it just seemed like they didn’t have much going for them.
What I thought worked really well from a production and mixing standpoint – and this was probably the input of Rubin – but that the vocals are all right up front in the mix. And not only that, but they all have tight, thoughtful melodies that stretch out Julian Casablancas’s range, especially on “The Adults Are Talking” and “Selfless.” Rubin is known for being all about the vocals and spending a lot of time with the singer to have everything planned.
NC: I agree. But there’s no spontaneity particularly on songs with his head voice where the auto-tune kicks in. It all felt a little too perfect, like Rubin made him do a bunch of takes. Again, it’s noticeable for Casablancas whose strength and charm was once his rough, gravelly vocal delivery.
BB: The guitars have some great ideas on “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” and “Not The Same Anymore”, but they’ve battered a lot of the vitality out them. I mean the bass is… there. Basically, in the same way its always been. But the guitar ideas lack the genuine thrill of danger they used to have.
NC: Aside from that it’s a very synth-heavy album. One thing I notice about this was that the sound design on the synths is really rudimentary. It’s sort of a common trend for bands paying respects to a new wave sound. Using basic synth patches on songs like "Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” (great title) with really abrasive triangle waves hooking you in, but it didn’t suit the song very well. It seems like the first tone they punched in. A vintage, dawn of the computer age, kind of sound. I don’t know, felt a little lazy.
BB: The Strokes came up in the computer/internet age, maybe it never lost its novelty.
NC: “Brooklyn Bridge” is a song that screams “Rick Rubin” because of the stripped back sound but still retaining a bunch of hooks. I love the way the chorus comes in like [sings lead guitar melody]. It brings a lot of energy to still have a catchy chorus like that. But I can’t say I really know what Casablancas is getting at when he says “I want new friends.”
BB: Well is Casablancas ever really getting at anything? I mean he kind of blew up his spot on “Ask Me Anything” on First Impressions of Earth where he repeats over and over “I’ve got nothing to say.” I’ve never really liked that song but it did help me realize that maybe The Strokes aren’t really a band about anything. What were their earlier, best songs about? Dating in New York?
NC: But he did have a way of painting effective nostalgia, as vague as it was.
BB: But was it nostalgia or just ripping off old songs? Maybe ripping off is a strong word but they have always been well-heeled copycats to a certain extent. On TNA I had the annoying chorus to “Bad Decisions” stuck in my head all weekend wondering why it was so catchy, until I realized it was just the melody from “Dancing With Myself.” A song I hate.
NC: And then you look at the liner notes and Generation X and Billy Idol are right there with song writing credits. I was thinking about “Dancing With Myself” as a song about loneliness. Here, Julian doesn’t have much to say again, but “Bad Decisions” doesn’t connect back to “Dancing With Myself” at all, so I don’t know if it was a conscious decision to quote the melody. I think it must have been an “Oh Shit” moment where they realized they ripped off the song and then had to slap the credits on there.
BB: It works nicely as an empowering chorus though. They’ve always taken cues from older songs. “Last Night” sounds a lot like Tom Petty’s “American Girl”, or almost any Strokes song sounds like Lou Reed’s “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim.” People love ripping off Tom Petty.
NC: Maybe they wanted the album to heavily signal the ‘80s. Same thing on “Eternal Summer” that credits the Psychedelic Furs.
BB: The whole thing is very cliché. The lyrics, “Summer is coming / It’s here to stay / Summer is coming / It won’t go away.” I mean holy shit.
NC: It’s also quite weird to be sitting here in my late 20’s, in quarantine, listening to these guys singing about how great the summer is.
BB: Another song I didn’t like was “At The Door.” A style of Strokes song written since First Impressions of Earth where it’s largely just Casablancas and synths. That’s an immediate skip for me.
NC: I thought the melodies were really great. When I heard this as a single it got my attention because I dug the performance, but the structure really detracted from my enjoyment. It hits the chorus and then it doesn’t go anywhere.
BB: True. And his lyrics don’t justify being just a keyboard/vocal song. It has a vibe though. I don’t really care about the “insight” of any particular Strokes song, for me it’s always been about the passion. I don’t get that here.
NC: The style of “ballad” has taken on a number of forms. In the ‘80s it took on a somber piano form. “At The Door” doesn’t really fit any of those styles except for the fact that it’s keyboard driven, but it doesn’t have the big drama of the classic ballads.
BB: We should talk about Rick Rubin now. The “Legendary” Rick Rubin. An honorific title I’ve never understood. There’s not much legendary about him. He’s a fully verifiable, documented person. The address of his studio is published.
NC: He’s produced a lot of great albums. Impressive resume, but he does have a very particular style that’s worked well for artist like Red Hot Chilli Peppers. He has recording chops. He really strips things down so that it’s just drums, bass, guitar, synths, vocals. He leaves a lot of space between instruments in the mix.
BB: He certainly doesn’t have mixing chops. Sonically, he ruined countless albums like Death Magnetic, Californication, Deloused in the Comatorium… Well those first two didn’t have much to ruin, but as part of the loudness wars, Rubin brick walls the mix of the album so everything lacks dynamics and is often clipping at higher volumes.
NC: Because he has such a reputation it doesn’t even sounds like he’s doing anything anymore. He’s treated like a god. When Jay-Z was advertising his shitty Samsung-sponsored Magna Carta Holy Grail he had a trailer video with Rick Rubin just chilling in the studio, but he didn’t even work on the album beyond being an exec. I know that’s not what The Strokes are doing here, but he’s become this go-to producer for aging bands needing a masterpiece. He doesn’t come off an obvious fit for The Strokes. He just applied his vacuum-sealed formula with lots of compression.
BB: He’s definitely over-used, probably because of the clout he brings to an album. I would say he’s flatlined a fair number of albums, and often times the artists he’s worked with have made far better records without him. Mainly from the late ‘90s onward.
NC: As Corey Taylor of Slipknot said, “He’s a shadow of his former self.” I don’t think he adds much to the TNA. He corners the band within certain sonics.
BB: It’s not clear what he adds aside from making it sound more lifeless. He cleans things up and keeps them tidy, but that’s not what The Strokes needed. They’re at their best when their energy is flowing, with the duality between their expressive energy in one part only to sink back down sounding glamorously apathetic. Now he just sounds apathetic.
NC: Seems apparent to me that they only chose him because he revitalizes careers. The production fidelity is great, but it seems The Strokes just had a bunch of songs that they took to a super-producer to record.
BB: It sounds tired. Julian sounds very lethargic at times.
NC: I’m just wondering how this record came about. Do they actively want to go back to The Strokes? Or is it just an expectation placed upon them by fans, the industry, whomever?
BB: I don’t think they’re friends anymore. Maybe in their individual songwriting they find themselves thinking, “this could be a Strokes song” and reach out to management.
NC: Looking at the credits, the music is credited to “The Strokes.” Casablancas wrote all the music on the first couple of records, so that was his thing. But now that he’s got such a great outlet for his songwriting with The Voidz, his performance doesn’t sound like he’s all too excited for The Strokes.
BB: Casablancas has always had that malaise since they started, and it was exciting when it was sung with those signature cries. But how far can you really stretch out your lyrical themes of apathy over 20 years before it just gets boring?
NC: It’s a great sounding record but it loses the magic of The Strokes, which for me, is those incredible bursts of energy and those rough edges. That grittiness is what felt exciting, and it’s hard not to wonder why they’re currently feeling as apathetic as they sound on record.