Nearly 12 years have passed since The Strokes first released the influential modern masterpiece of Is This It. Their latest LP, Comedown Machine is a relatively unheralded release and comes into a world where rock ‘n’ roll is no longer flavour of the month. Does this latest album leave us dreaming of the post-punk revival of yesteryear?
The cover art of Comedown Machine is a stark reminder of the end of a beautiful relationship. The Strokes appear to pay tribute to their record label RCA Records, their label’s name appearing in extra-large font, dominates the record sleeve. This is the final release of a five record deal that begun with the ground breaking Is This It. Simple and uncomplicated, a record sleeve steeped in nostalgia also suggests a marked priority of sound over aesthetic.
While their last release, Angles, was by no means an awful album, it came amidst a storm of delays, solo projects and rumoured in-fighting. The Strokes appeared to be a band fragmented, certainly not the five-piece that, in its pomp, simply oozed cool. Fundamentally, Angles wasn’t an album worthy of a five year wait, it lacked the undeniable magic and verve of the first three releases.
It appears that the New Yorkers have benefited from a lack of pressure, Comedown Machine feels a lot more cohesive than their previous LP. On Angles’ promotional tour, Valensi told an interviewer, “I feel like we have a better album in us and it’s going to come out soon.” Although Comedown Machine is not without its faults, it is undoubtedly a superior record.
A screeching guitar drops the listener straight into the luscious, afro-beat stylings of opening track, “Tap Out”, The Strokes immediately exhibiting a chemistry that was all too absent in Angles. Comedown Machine explores several unfamiliar soundscapes, with varied results. “One Way Trigger” is an explosion of frantic noise that sees the band channelling A-ha’s synthpop spirit. The end result is a frustrating track that sounds like it should be on Casablancas’ Phrazes for the Young. Similarly, “80’s Comedown Machine” is overwhelmed by synthesisers and is unlikely to become one of the bands’ greatest hits.
There are still a few garage rock throwbacks included to satisfy puritans, “50/50” appears to take its cues from the raw sound of bands such as The Datsuns and The Von Bondies. Similarly, “All The Time” delivers the sound of 2001 in a tidy track that is pleasing to listen to, but little more. The band does venture into some exciting new territory with “Welcome to Japan”, a thrilling visit to the neo-Tokyo wonderland also recently visited by Phoenix’s “That’s Entertainment”. The prevalent 80’s sound that flows through the album will, for the most part, appease fans’ desires.
Comedown Machine is often at its best in its more tender moments. Slow Animals is mesmerising, with Casablancas softly singing, “You don’t have to be so down/Everyone can hear you in this whole damn crowd.” If the track is a reflection on the bands’ various ups and downs in recent times, it’s certainly a touching one. In addition, the beautiful, lamenting lullaby of “Call It Fate Call It Karma” ends the album on a unique note, leaving listeners wondering where the band will go next. A reference to a line in the hit 80’s film Ghostbusters, the hazy, dreamlike nature of the song sounds remarkably similar to one of Casablancas‘ early home demo’s, “I’ll Try Anything Once”.
Fans looking for Is This It Part II need to re-assess their expectations. Valensi and Fraiture both have children now. Just into their thirties, it’s arguable that The Strokes have a lot of mileage left in them, and that they are still capable of making a very good LP. However, to produce an album that possesses the impact and quality of their debut is difficult for a band that has been through so much, so young. If we learn to accept that The Strokes are no longer the scruffy rebels we were introduced to in 2001, Comedown Machine can be viewed as one of The Strokes’ best releases yet.
The album delivers a fresh sound for a band that has managed to adapt and prove its longevity.
…Joseph has been listening to Bonobo – “Emkay”