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Album Review: The New Abnormal

The Strokes decamp from their roots and return with a “goodbye to all that”: an album equal parts depressing and hopeful

Jason McDonald

Almost every review of The Strokes’ new album mentions the coronavirus. And let’s face it, with a work titled “The New Abnormal,” the pithy headlines write themselves. The name actually comes from an address former California Governor Jerry Brown made in 2018 about the state’s wildfires. So, to suggest that the album’s title is simply a strange coincidence that describes our current pandemic-induced state is to ignore the deeper political critiques that pervade the work.

Unlike many of their counterparts, The Strokes have never been big on innuendos or obscure references — not too much sleuthing is required to understand what Julian Casablancas is talking about. On the new album, there are a lot of nakedly political lyrics; in “Endless Summer,” a reference to climate change, Casablancas says “Everybody’s on the take. Are you on the take too?” In “Not the Same Anymore” he writes, “A child prisoner grows up / to see his enemy’s throat cut.” On album opener “The Adults Are Talking,” Julian shouts out, simply, “stockholders.”

Casablancas’ actual political activism has never been particularly subtle either. In a video he made for Bernie Sanders’ presidential run last year, he was matter-of-fact: “Bernie is the only truly non-corporate candidate. He’s the only person who you can believe what he’s saying.” At a rally for Sanders in Manchester, New Hampshire, the band deviated from their planned setlist to play “New York City Cops” while being pushed offstage by Manchester’s finest.

Welcome to The New Abnormal, The Strokes often appear to be telling us. Everything sucks.

The weird thing is, though, the band seems to be having fun with one another. After their meteoric rise in 2001 with smash hit (and for my money one of the top five rock albums of all time) “Is This It?” things began to devolve in fairly rote ways that included drug problems and internal strife. By the time their fifth studio album “Comedown Machine” came out in 2013, the band didn’t even bother touring to support it. But now, Casablancas is saying in interviews that he’s having more fun with the band than he has since 2003’s “Room on Fire” and because their tour dates were postponed, they’ve been releasing fairly awkward but very charming zoom calls with one another that they’re calling “5guys talking about things they know nothing about.”

Nineteen years after they first broke onto the scene, it’s possible that part of the key to their success is that even though they continue to headline festivals, their true rockstar days are far behind them. There is less pressure to pay direct homage to their early work or to consciously break out of that mold. What we’re left with is an album with some hits heavy on the guitar and drums, like “Bad Decisions,” (which is also something of a Billy Idol homage) and some that sound very little like anything they’ve done before, such as synth-heavy “At The Door.”

While the album was something of a musical decampment, it was certainly a physical one. Associated with New York City for so long, only two of the band’s members, bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fab Moretti, still live there full time, and “The New Abnormal” was recorded in Malibu’s Shangri-La Studios by super producer Rick Rubin.

Live in New York for long enough and a pattern of ghostly nostalgia will begin to emerge. Street corners change, restaurants rotate in and out, more banks emerge, more condos are built. Places are often more famous for what they used to be than what they are — Julian’s critique of unfettered capitalism that appears throughout his body of work seems right on the money these days. Lewis and Clark, the 25 year old analysts at McKinsey, have long since discovered the Lower East Side where The Strokes first made their name.

“The New Abnormal” critiques this corporatism without being mechanically grumpy about it. Julian, along with guitarists Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi, practiced enough restraint to not write a trite “Why I’m Leaving New York” essay when they packed themselves out of the five boroughs of their youth. “The New Abnormal” is probably the closest thing we’ll get to a “Goodbye to All That” from The Strokes. It succeeds where other works of the same sort fail because of dual realizations: admittedly lots of things, New York included, are probably worse than they used to be. But if we’re all going to be working for Amazon in a decade anyways, why not have fun while we can?

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