“Up on a hill, here’s where we begin/This little story, a long time ago.” Maybe New York City isn’t technically a hill and maybe 19 years isn’t so long ago, but, excepting that, the opening line from “The Modern Age” could serve double-duty as the first words in the story of The Strokes. After all, the song was the title track and one of three songs included on the EP the band released in 2001 that set off a bidding war for their services and cranked up the hype machine to deafening levels.
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It also is one of the most memorable tracks on the band’s debut album Is This It, an album that somehow managed to exceed that hype. The Strokes’ sound, which combined the ramshackle attitude of garage rock with the arched-eyebrow posturing of art rock in inimitably striking fashion, receives a lot of that credit for the band’s success. But that sound wouldn’t have meant quite as much if it weren’t attached to memorable songs courtesy of lead singer Julian Casablancas.
“The Modern Age” is a fine example of this alchemy. Chunky staccato guitars in the intro eventually open up into a buoyant bass line from Nikolai Fraiture and stomping drums from Fabrizio Moretti. Nick Valensi takes off on a searing guitar solo in the middle portion of the song, yet the melody in the chorus balances that out with its melancholic chord changes.
Casablancas’ vocals contain that same kind of variety, as he trades off between dejected monotone and animated braying, like some unholy cross between Ian Curtis and Jim Morrison. The lyrics also can’t decide whether they want rhapsodize about some idealized afternoon in the sun or moan about the peripatetic nature of 21st-century life.
Along the way, Casablancas’ lines, seemingly tossed off and nonchalant, start to draw blood. “Stop to pretend, stop pretending/It seems this game is simply never-ending,” he sings, seeming to reference the chasm between childhood playfulness and adult seriousness that the young-at-heart futilely try to bridge. When he sings, “Work hard and say it’s easy,” it’s an interesting theory for this at-the-time budding rock star to put forth: that the appearance of nonchalance may be crucial to success, but the practice of it is career suicide.
Through the song a loose story about the narrator trying to shake free from a clinging suitor runs, but “The Modern Age” is after bigger fish than that, as evidenced by the song’s title. The pleasures are ephemeral (“No time to feel the breeze”), the coping mechanisms are numbing (“I took too many varieties”) and, when you can’t make it work, it’s best just to bail and try again another day (“Tomorrow may be different/So this Is why I’m leaving.”)
Speaking about his band’s enduring popularity in a 2014 Rolling Stone interview, Casablancas shook off the plaudits. “It feels humbling and validating that you’re doing some things right,” he said. “But it’s the same thing with an actor: If a movie does really well at the box office, they make 10 of those afterward because that’s what they think people like. . . . If something has commercial value, it doesn’t mean it’s good.” False modesty and indifferent cool is all well and good, but many have tried to copy The Strokes formula in the wake of Is This It and have fallen well short. And the story the band started with “The Modern Age” still enthralls.