Have reviewers tried to make anything of Comedown Machine, The Strokes’s latest record, out last Tuesday? There wasn’t any media hype ahead of the release and even the blogosphere seems muted after the fact. Are people even really reviewing it at all? Anything published is ambivalent at best, as full of question marks and mumbled-through obscurity as the record’s lyrics themselves. (The best thing about The Strokes I’ve read in the light of this latest release is Steven Hyden’s comprehensive piece in Grantland.)
There is a feeling that something must be made of albums, of art generally – that is, after all the job of the reviewer, the point of a review. Art has to mean something, right? (It can be argued that at any rate it should.) And doesn’t music – good, tasteful music – more than qualify as art? If you agree that yes, music is art, and yes, art should mean something, and yes, a few deep underlying meanings should be pulled from the depths of a record, then what do you, in agreement with all of these maxims, make of Comedown Machine? Because I’m at an affable loss.
The Strokes, since I was introduced to them in 2001 when they released the brilliant Is This It, have always possessed the demeanor of simply not giving a shit. They were, as our clocks rolled over into the new millenium, the heirs of the late-70s New York downtown scene, a dirty hair reminder of the past though at the same time unmistakably current, rocking without apology at the beginning of an era new and exciting.
Their career has been a bit strange and/or unconventional. They have been darlings and outcasts and just hung around for a while then disappeared for another while and then released the solid Angles in 2011. Is This It was an album I didn’t like 12 years ago because, as a teenager in the south, I didn’t understand it. A decade-plus later, it made sense as I strolled through LES with it blaring in headphones. Angles also impressed itself upon me late (only a year and change this time around), its varied melodies, layered vocals, and synthy arrangements keeping things fresh during the autumn of 2012.
So this is the first Strokes album that I’ve listened to as it’s fresh on the market, and while I can make the blanket statement that I like it, I won’t venture to say that I understand it, that I get it. But then I take a step back and wonder, given the lack of publicity preceding its release and the LP’s content itself, is there even anything to get? Seems to me that The Strokes are exactly who we thought they were back in 2001: a downtown New York City band carrying the flame from the CBGBs into the new millenium, all the while giving everybody one big finger.
My take of The Strokes in 2013 as a result of this new album is:
- They don’t care about being a “great” band in the eyes of the public
- They don’t care about making music that’s pleasing to anyone but themselves (presumably)
- They aren’t even sure they like making music any longer
- They don’t know why they continue to make music other than they are good at it and it’s what they’ve always done
- They don’t care that they don’t know why
The first track, “Tap Out,” is either an admission or submission. Of or to what exactly is uncertain, but the message is clear from the start. The album starts with a Van Halen-esque screeching guitar that elicits hope in the listener that this will be an album similar to Is This It and Room on Fire, but after a few seconds the shredding is summarily replaced by synthesizers. You get teased, a carrot is briefly dangled, then The Strokes come in and do their (current) thing. And if you don’t like their (current) thing, too bad. Read through the lyrics and you realize that whatever Julian Casablancas is trying to express is shrouded by ambivalence. “Something isn’t adding up … Don’t ask questions / ‘Cause I don’t know why … I don’t listen / And I don’t speak / Well, it’s a talent / I don’t know why,” he sings. From the outset, you realize you are getting into an album filled with only statements and questions; no answers will be forthcoming. If you are looking for affirmation of your life choices or clues as to the meaning of it all, turn elsewhere. Comedown Machine isn’t offering them and The Strokes are indifferent to your desire for them.
The next two tracks are fairly straightforward tunes, offering a blend of old Strokes driving tempo with enough synth to keep things interesting. They succeed in preparing you for “Welcome to Japan,” an oddly endearing song about … something. The stick-out lyric from the chorus is: “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?” And while you aren’t sure what kind, you think, “exactly” with a chuckle and find yourself surrounded by a dreamland of Far East gangsters and cherry blossoms.
The apex of the record is found in “80’s Comedown Machine” and “50/50.” The first is the synthy-est, most heartfelt, and saddest song on the record. A rainy day song about either a textbook break-up or an acute stalker/peeping-tom situation (or both), the emotions are crystallized and readily available, in juxtaposition to most of the other tracks. Next is “50/50,” which drives forward like older Strokes songs. It even has the same recorded-in-an-LES-bathroom-through-egg-crate-foam-into-a-cheap-microphone vocals. The synth is absent and we are having fun again. Once more, we are rocking like the days of old.
From there, the rest of the album slides into medium tempo slices of life meted out in Casablancas’s falsetto. Important things are addressed – the human’s resistance to learning how to do things the right way, the crushing disappointment of ended relationships, and the like – but it really cruises carelessly to a finish, the ultimate song an old-timey-ish song titled “Call it Fate, Call it Karma,” which may or may not be offering an answer to the listener’s implicit question of “how did we get here?” It’s just how things ended up, The Strokes seem to say, and maybe something we did – you or us or all of us together – dictated this end. But we aren’t sure what that something was, and we honestly don’t care.
As I analyzed Comedown Machine, I was drawn back to a lyric from “Last Nite” where Casablancas sings that “in spaceships they won’t understand.” This latest record often sounds like it was either recorded in or delivered via a spaceship, as though it comes from some other realm where maxims and truths and points to be made are different. Or perhaps he meant that beings from that other realm, upon hearing our music and reading our books and observing our human chaos, won’t understand us at all. And maybe Comedown Machine is an attempt to either get on their level or knowingly confuse them further. At any rate, The Strokes have put this record out into the world for consumption, though they aren’t sure why. And we shouldn’t worry about why either.