New York alternative rock band the Strokes return with their anticipated fifth studio album, Comedown Machine, which follows the band’s 2011 effort, Angles. Throughout the efficient 40-minute, 11-track affair, the Strokes oscillate between garage-rock and ’80s inspired stylings. The results ultimately vary at times between being terrific, overindulgent, and mixed. For the most part though, Comedown Machine is enjoyable.
“Tap Out” opens the effort embracing ’80s pop influences. The groove possesses the rhythmic drive of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” or the Commodores’s “Nightshift”. Frontman Julian Casablancas is somewhat casual vocally, making his vocals difficult to decipher at times. The chorus is worthwhile despite this: “Decide my past / define my life / don’t ask questions / cause I don’t know why….” If “Tap Out” is ’80s pop, the single “All The Time” contrasts with a garage/indie-rock based sound. The groove is energetic and driving, propelled by guitar and bass. Lyrically, references to a lack of enough ‘time’ (“All the time that I need is never quite enough” and “…All the time in the world / is all that’s necessary…”) drive the cut.
Standout “One Way Trigger” returns to production sporting a poppy-edge and quick tempo. Casablancas exhibits a plethora of vocal energy on the chorus, contrasting ‘smaller’ vocals on the verses. “Welcome to Japan” continues fascination of the ’80s, driven by hi-hat heavy drums, rhythmic guitar, and gargantuan bass line. Casablancas’s vocals once more are performed in his distinct undertone. Even so, he manages to ignite on the memorable chorus: “I didn’t want to notice / didn’t know the gun was loaded / didn’t really know this / what kind of asshole drives a Lotus?” On “80s Countdown Machine”, the tempo is slackened, but a solid groove remains intact. The first verse gives a narrative identity to the cut: “It’s not the first time / that I watched you passing by / I’ve tried to hard / to get back there / but you never try anymore…” On the refrain, Casablancas goes simpler and repetitive, while the production antithetically grows more anthemic.
“50/50” isn’t revolutionary by any means, but brings the Strokes back to an assertive, driven garage-rock sound sans new-wave stylings. Casablancas’s vocals employ distortion, further embodying the garage sensibility. Notable songwriting on “Slow Animals” makes it one of the album’s best songs. The band brings to the forefront the ‘reckless’ perception (by the older generation) of today’s youth: “But the next generation will forget / they’re scared of where their daughter’s been / cause who knows, she could be alone with men / they never wanna see or hear or think about again.”
“Partners in Crime” is riddle-laden lyrically, which can be perceived as both a pro and a con. While it requires processing by the listener, it also feels scattered. “Chances”, on the other hand, sounds like a standard pop song. Casablancas shifts between falsetto and middle/lower register vocally. “Happy Ending” spikes up the tempo, while closing cut “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” ends the album somewhat surprisingly with an unexpected, ‘off-beat’ tropical groove.
As previously suggested, Comedown Machine is an enjoyable album with some great moments, though not a perfect or definitive one. At times, Julian Casablancas comes off as a bit self-indulgent, which takes away from the listener’s ability to connect and relate to the material. As it is, Comedown Machine is an effort where successive listens and dissections of the songs ultimately reveal more meaning and comprehension. Good, not magnificent.