Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
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When the Strokes released their breakthrough debut album, Is This It, in 2001, they unknowingly erected a monolith that would come to cast an inescapable shadow over their future career. Looking back, it’s no mystery why the album resonated with so many listeners and critics at the time. Commercial rock music had been mired in hyper-aggressive nu-metal and histrionic post-grunge (Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” was released the same year as Is This It, for one notable example), and The Strokes represented a return to a kind of bad-assed, freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll that favored scrappy dive-bar hedonism over blockbuster anthems. For anyone who ever wanted the opportunity to set their time machine back to 1977 New York City, The Strokes came closer than anyone to being able to make that happen.
But New York City changed — the old punks grew up, CBGB is now John Varvatos, and the spark of Is This It has since tapered down to a dimly lit ember. Not that The Strokes have tended to it all that carefully. Though 2003’s Room on Fire had the energy and taut dynamic of their debut, the band’s next two albums, 2006’s First Impressions of Earth and 2011’s Angles, seemed rudderless and stagnant, bearing neither the hooks nor the scruffy aesthetic that made them interesting to begin with. There’s an argument to be made that The Strokes were always more style than substance to begin with, but when the style itself is muted or diminished, what’s left is a frustrating mess.
On fifth album Comedown Machine, the band sounds more focused than they’ve been in a long time, returning to punchy, taut tunes stacked to the rafters with hooks. That, in itself, might be some kind of success for the band, but their aesthetic has been polished and made over on Comedown Machine, mostly leaving behind the classic rock sound they’ve proven much better at for a slick, electronics-tinged pop record. Essentially, The Strokes recorded a Phoenix album, perhaps returning the favor for that French band’s Strokes-like performance on 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That. Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad in the abstract, but Phoenix are much better at being themselves than The Strokes are, and at this point, they’re better at being The Strokes, too.
The squeal of guitar that opens “Tap Out” teases a potential foray into hard-charging rock ‘n’ roll, but what follows is, instead, a streamlined and smoothed-out indie pop track that pops and flexes with machine-like drums and electro gloss. It’s not altogether unpleasant, but where it might work for, say, a French indie pop band, here it seems an awkward fit. More successful is the ragged, soaring guitar rock of “All the Time,” though from there, the album undergoes a series of stumbles and tumbles. The earworm popcorn riffs in “One Way Trigger” wear out their welcome pretty quickly, and “Welcome to Japan” boasts a particularly cringe-worthy lyric from Julian Casablancas (“Didn’t really know this/ What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?”).
Comedown Machine hits the reset button in its middle section, lining up a solid trio of tracks in the dreamy “’80s Comedown Machine,” the rowdy “50/50” and the moody, nuanced grooves of “Slow Animals.” As solid a groove as this block of songs hits, it’s short lived, and in short order the group descends into tepid electro-pop on “Chances” and somewhat silly lounge balladry on “Call It Fate, Call It Karma.” In one sense, it’s commendable that The Strokes are so willing to branch out and take on different styles, yet the effort often sounds overplayed or undercooked. The Strokes can still write a good song when so inspired — “Slow Animals” is evidence enough of that. Unfortunately Comedown Machine proves that there are still a few bad ones left in their system.