Arts & Entertainment

The Strokes Leverage ‘80s Nostalgia to Complete Their Comeback With ‘The New Abnormal’

Charles Reagan Hackleman | Lollapalooza 2019Rock band The Strokes headlined Lollapalooza Thursday, Aug. 1. The five-piece band, fronted by Julian Casablancas, formed in 1998.

As The Strokes’ first full-length album since 2013, “The New Abnormal” sits in a strange spot. It’s an impressive addition to the band’s discography, but it’s not the bombastic, triumphant return diehard fans might have expected, and skeptics are unlikely to be swayed by the band’s refined sound.

The album, released April 10, immediately showcases a band that has improved their craft since listeners last heard them. Album opener “The Adults are Talking” is quintessential Strokes, a perfect application of the basic Strokes formula that made the group so popular in the first place.

“They been sayin’ you’re sophisticated / They’re complainin’, overeducated,” frontman Julian Casablancas croons, backed by a lively, if barebones bassline from bassist Nikolai Fratture and lightning bolt splashes of guitar riffs from Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. 

It’s a showstopping opener, combining the instrumental stylings of the band’s earlier work — it’s particularly reminiscent of their sophomore album “Room on Fire” (2003). The indignant, frustrated lyricism harkens back to their fifth album, “First Impressions of Earth,” to form a more layered, appealing sound.

The strong opener’s momentum continues into “Selfless,” a crescendoing ballad that also serves as the unveiling of Casablancas’ new and improved falsetto. Punctuated by drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s crashing cymbals and another strong bassline from Fratture, “Selfless” is the kind of effortlessly bold, romantic song that suits the band the best these days.

Casablancas and his bandmates have grown up, but more crucially, the band finally seems to have reconciled their exasperation toward their early mainstream success — and the scrutiny attached to it — with their desire to experiment and goof around musically.

If “Last Nite” mimicking the opening riff of “American Girl” was a sly wink by 23-year-old rebel Casablancas, this album’s “Dancing with Myself” riff, “Bad Decisions,” is a whoopie cushion planted by the 41-year-old dad version of him, and it’s a welcome display of self-awareness. 

It doesn’t hurt that “Bad Decisions” is an absolute delight. It’s a breezy, instantly catchy song, and it reflects the album’s main appeal: for the first time in over a decade, The Strokes sound like they’re enjoying themselves again.

Curiously, one ‘80s soundalike is followed by another, this time coming by way of British New Wave band The Psychedelic Furs. “Eternal Summer” gets its melody from the band’s 1984 single “The Ghost in You.” 

It’s a risky placement, and it only works because “Eternal Summer” might be the album’s peak. Consistent with the rest of the album, Casablancas lets loose vocally while Hammond Jr. and Valensi’s guitar work is as precise and versatile as ever. 

This isn’t just a shallow copy of the original Furs song, either. It’s also an expert amalgamation of the band’s strengths and their influences. The song’s droning synths come directly from Casablancas’ Voidz work, and its shout-sung bridges are reminiscent of “The Wall”-era Pink Floyd. It’s this variety that makes “Eternal Summer” a perfect example of the album’s strengths.

However, while this ‘80s inspiration has resulted in a highly accessible album, the album’s best songs still aren’t as good as their previous album’s best songs — even “Angles” wins that competition on the strength of “Under Cover of Darkness.” The album’s obvious musical references could combine with its lack of truly great songs to leave the band’s critics — and new listeners — unimpressed.

The album also draws heavily from the band’s previous three albums. It results in their most layered, impressive sound yet, but that doesn’t mean the average listener will respond to experiments in style that didn’t land a decade ago, even if they are handled with more nuance here.

Still, every song here is a worthy addition to the band’s discography, and a few of them are sure to land in most Strokes fans’ regular rotation. “The Adults are Talking,” “Eternal Summer,” and “Ode to the Mets” jump out immediately, the latter of which features Casablancas’ most haunting vocals since his Voidz epic “Human Sadness.”

Given the enduring popularity of the band’s debut album, “Is This It,” it’s slightly stunning that The Strokes dipped out of the public consciousness enough that they needed to make a comeback attempt. Regardless, it resulted in an album that’s built to stand the test of time, even if it might not put them back at the top of the rock genre.

“The New Abnormal” is available on all music streaming platforms.

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