As with David Bowie and Justin Timberlake in recent weeks, the Strokes fifth album, Comedown Machine, came out online one week before its physical release date. Here are five next-day thoughts on a record that doesn’t recall the NYC band’s glory days, but isn’t a complete disaster, either.
1. More of a comeback then a comedown.
Comedown Machine is much better than 2011’s Angles, though as much of a mixed compliment as saying Wendy’s fast food hamburgers are better than McDonald’s. With the exception of two or three songs, like “Under Dover of Darkness” and “Taken for a Fool,” Angles was a disjointed mess. Comeback Machine, however, sounds like an actual album, not just a collection of 11 songs thrown together haphazardly. That’s at least partially because unlike on Angles, the entire band recorded the thing together, at the same time in the same studio. It’s weird that that’s a thing that needs to be stated, but here we are.
2. So much for garage rock
The longer it’s been since Is This It, the less the Strokes are a rock band. It begs the question: were Julian Casablancas & Co. ever that interested in guitars in the first place, or did they just use the rock revival as an excuse to get to a place where they could make an album splashed with 1980s new wave synths, as Comeback is? It gets even more confusing when you factor in the Strokes arguably being THE reason the revival even happened. (Maybe it’s unfair to discuss the Strokes then vs. the Strokes now, or hold them accountable for what they were doing 12 years ago, but were it not for Is This It and Room on Fire, no one pay any mind to Comedown; as a standalone album by a standalone band, it’s not that interesting.)
They haven’t completely given up their scruffy beginnings — “All the Time” could have been on the oft-kilter Room on Fire and “Chances” is a breath of sweaty air after the cheesy, if pleasant “Partners in Crime” — but too often Comedown, ostensibly a Jules solo album (think: John Lennon inviting Ringo to play drums on Plastic Ono Band), is weighed down by muddled homages to the decade Is This It tried to make us forget. Also, “Tap Out” uses the same riff as Gloria Estefan’s “Conga.”
3. Really, is this it?
Here’s a helpful hint: if Julian’s sighed vocals sound disinterested, well, there’s a reason for that. (See: “80’s Comedown Machine.”)
4. “Welcome to…Japan?”
It’s an odd feeling when you realize you know the lyrics to every song by a band, but have no idea what you’re singing. Take “Reptilia,” for instance, from Room on Fire. I’ve listened to it dozens of time, but never realized that I was saying, “Our lives are changing lanes/You ran me off the road” until looking up the lyrics 30 seconds ago. The same goes for Comedown — when you can actually make out what Julian is singing, which is harder and harder to do with his and the band’s continued fascination with dreamy falsetto and layered production. And the lyrics you can make out, like “You ask me to stay/But there’s a million reasons to leave,” paint the picture of a man who’s wondering, does the world need a fifth Strokes album?
5. “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” is…something
Speaking of not being able to make out what the hell Jules is saying: what’s going on on album closer, “Call It Fate, Call It Karma”? It’s vaguely reminiscent in its preciousness to the Strokes’ magical “I’ll Try Anything Once,” but it’s as if they didn’t want to rip themselves off, so they instead made it sound like a Mule Variations-era Tom Waits cover recorded on a ballerina music box. It’s a confusing end to a confusing album from a confusing band.