That Angles is released a decade after the Strokes’ landmark debut Is This It only invites and begs for comparisons and retrospectives, whether or not it’s fair to judge an album on the merits of another, especially one that’s been such a hard act to follow. But it’s like the band itself is resigned to acknowledge that reality, as Julian Casablancas identifies the lose-lose situation in which the Strokes find themselves, on the new record’s most Strokes-like track, the single “Under Cover of Darkness”. When Casablancas snarks, “Everybody’s singing the same song for ten years” on it, he might as well be speaking to the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t corner the iconic group is backed into on Angles, caught between doing what they’ve always been doing because they (and their fans) are nostalgic about their nostalgic rock or moving out of their comfort zone when, let’s face it, their strength has never been originality. Hearing “Under Cover of Darkness”, basically the same Strokes song ten years later, you realize the Strokes weren’t faking it until they could make it — they made it because they faked it so well.
But what the Strokes can’t fudge on are enthusiasm and camaraderie, and that, unfortunately, comes through loud and clear on a disjointed, uneven effort like Angles. Indeed, it doesn’t take any thorough before-and-after compare-and-contrast between Angles and Is This It to get the idea that the Strokes aren’t having nearly as much fun now as they did ten years earlier, which makes all the difference in the world. Much has been made about the arduous, disconnected process involved in creating Angles, which had Casablancas contribute his vocals, often sent electronically, after the rest of the band had recorded the instrumental tracks. This has apparently left the Strokes themselves uncertain about the results on Angles, with members vowing never to work this way again and even promising to do better next time in interviews promoting this album. Confidence is one thing you’d never think this band lacked, so you wonder what you have left with the Strokes without their joie de vivre and esprit des corps.
Angles answers that question: Sometimes, the backstory doesn’t tell you much of anything, but it clues you in to a lot in this case, since Casablancas often seems distanced from what the rest of the band is doing, his vocals floating above the layers of instrumentation. Like on the reggae-esque opener “Machu Picchu”, which finds the Strokes deconstructed, with all the band’s elements separated out, rather than integrated. “Metabolism” almost feels like two separate bands playing on one track, with Casablancas’ drawn-out drawl out of sync with his bandmates’ stab at soaring, too-loud synth-rock.
There’s just not enough that’s organic, spontaneous, and tight about Angles, the very qualities that had made the Strokes greater than the sum of their parts. Even the album’s most compelling blasts-from-the-past, “Under Cover of Darkness” and “Taken for a Fool”, are missing that something intangible, revisiting the Strokes’ distinctive neo-garage aesthetic without fully recapturing the same vibe and spirit that made them iconic. So while “Taken for a Fool” packs some visceral punch and “Under Cover of Darkness” relives some of the best moments of the band’s best singles, they just don’t radiate with the same exuberance and joy that made those first impressions special.
So maybe Angles is the most diverse album the Strokes have put out, but that variety generally comes at the expense of the cohesion that has defined their approach. Rather than sticking to a formula that revived their NYC forerunners the Velvet Underground, Television, and the Ramones, the Strokes incorporate some more styles, with the effect of coming off all over the place. Maybe that’s the product of the piecemeal recording process, but there are just too many moments when they sound like someone else more than themselves. On “Two Kinds of Happiness”, the Strokes reveal the Cars as a touchstone and try their hand at new wave, as Casablancas apes Ric Ocasek’s vocal tics. So they may have the moxy to pull it off fairly well, but the track keeps the Strokes from striking the sense of stylistic unity that’s usually their calling card. Same goes for the Thin Lizzy tribute “Gratisfication”, with Casablancas’ shuffling vocals recalling “The Boys Are Back in Town”, and Albert Hammond, Jr. and Nick Valensi’s guitars beefier than usual. Even though they made their name by cribbing from the best moves of others, the Strokes lose a little too much of their own sense of identity this time around.
What’s more, it’s odd that a group that’s pretty much better than anyone else at being too cool for school sometimes seems to be trying too hard on Angles. The robotic “You’re So Right” sticks out like a sore thumb, the Strokes’ attempt at their own “Paranoid Android” with its skittish synths and Fabrizio Moretti’s anxious drums. Even more jarring in its pretentions is the techno-ish “Games”, on which Casablancas tries to wax philosophical on its chorus of “Living in an empty world,” since depth and social commentary aren’t exactly what you come to the Strokes for. Indeed, for a group that became larger than life by never acting like they were more than what they were — a really good, really fun rock band — these songs, along with their version of the Velvets’ “The Murder Mystery” on “Call Me Back”, are curious bids for artsy-fartsy importance that might mark something like a mid-life crisis in the Strokes’ career.
But if there’s one sign that the Strokes can get past this rough patch, it’s that Angles isn’t all about instant, um gratisfaction and might just be an effort that has the potential to gain traction over time. Come to think of it, “Gratisfication”, even if it’s not their most inspired offering, might serve as a good example of how the Strokes are trying to make their new arrangement work, recovering a little of their bonhomie on when the group sings in unison. But it’s the closing track “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight” that most effectively points to what a more mature Strokes might be like, taking their tried-and-true formula and stretching it out in a more gentle, even contemplative way. So when Casablancas utters the album’s last lines, “Don’t try to stop us / Get out of the way,” he does so in a way that’s more about inner resolve than getting the Strokes’ youthful swagger back.
The final word on Angles really comes on “Under Cover of Darkness”, though, when Casablancas sings, “I’ll wait for you / Will you wait for me too?” If the Strokes keep their word that better things are yet to come, Angles could be seen in a different light in due time, the album where they worked through their late-in-coming growing pains and found themselves at a fork in the road, not the end of it.