The Strokes‘ frontman Julian Casablancas wants you to know that he’s interested in authenticity. He thinks Ariel Pink should be more popular than Ed Sheeran. He prefers smaller venues for his band the Voidz because he doesn’t want to rest on the credibility of his past successes. He is sickened with how capitalism’s corrupted the music industry, telling Vulture in 2018 that “there are formulas to make the most amount of money out of music and those formulas don’t incorporate the variable for quality. Artistic value and truth value are casualties of the process.” And all that’s fine and good, unless you try to square it with the Strokes’ latest album, The New Abnormal, an unabashedly uninspired promotional item for their upcoming world tour.
For anyone who’s been paying attention, a phoned-in album from the former saviors of guitar music shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After the intra-band bickering of 2011’s Angles and the contractual-obligation that was 2013’s Comedown Machine, most people assumed the band was over, at least in an artistic sense. In 2018, Casablancas all but confirmed those suspicions, implying that the Strokes had become something that was “more pay-the-bills” than genuine interest.
I’m not mad that the Strokes have become an overt cash grab. Sleepwalk-tours have become a rite of passage for rock legends, so it’s to be expected that a band so steeped in “rock & roll” iconography would find their way to that stage sooner or later. And, sure, releasing new music is often a component of that commercial process. It reminds fans that you exist, and that you’ll be in their town, and that tickets and VIP packages are available if you act quickly.
But if you’re only interested in cashing in on millennial nostalgia, why go through the trouble of releasing a truly boring full length? In the age of streaming, a collection of singles could get the job done just as well. I thought that was the direction the band was taking with 2016’s Future Present Past — an EP that was little more than a billboard for their tour dates, one that ditched the pretense of the album and only gave fans the few new songs they might hear in the otherwise crowd-pleasing setlists. Yet here we are with The New Abnormal.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for bands soldiering on past their prime. I love seeing the ways artists try to redefine themselves, to challenge their most devoted fans, to continue tinkering long past the cool kids and tastemakers have disappeared. My issue is that there’s so little on The New Abnormal that sounds like anything close to giving a shit. Mostly, they passively experiment with synth sounds as they did on Angles and Comedown Machine. At one point, they jack the melody to “Dancing With Myself”.
Sadly, the most intriguing parts of the record are the numerous times when Casablancas comments on the piss-poor songwriting in realtime. On “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus”, a new wave track that, you guessed it, relies almost entirely on a catchy chorus, he breaks the fourth wall repeatedly. “And the ’80s bands, where did they go?” he sings, before flatly asking, “Can we switch into the chorus right now?” On album closer “Ode to the Mets”, which is an actual song title on a Strokes album, he only grows more self-aware. “The only thing that’s left is us,” he sings, “so pardon the silence that you’re hearing is turning into a deafening, painful, shameful roar.”
I’m sure Casablancas believes he’s clever by winking his way through what he feels is an unfortunate obligation, but the fact that the Strokes still exist isn’t the problem. There can be artistic value in nostalgic setlists like the ones that make up their summer tours. After all, isn’t allowing people to transcend the present, even if only for a few minutes, one of art’s primary goals? Creating an album’s worth of intentionally disposable pap, meanwhile, makes space for the creator alone. It doesn’t illuminate capitalism’s stranglehold on authenticity; it only adds to it.