The Strokes’ The New Abnormal was my favorite album of 2020

Courtesy of RCA

Whenever I’m uncertain of how to properly appreciate a new album, I check Pitchfork’s review of it.

Phew. All that awkward, icky uncertainty washes away, and I find myself floating in that serene state so endemic to modernity, having eschewed the painstaking process of cultivating your own set of opinions in favor of outsourcing to the tastemakers—I mean, they’re paid to do it! The only time I listen to music, anyway, is when I put on a Muzak-laced Spotify playlist at a dinner party!

But a life spent fumbling through unceasing numbers of reviews inevitably leaves one spread thin—butter, over too much bread, as a hobbit would put it—not to mention filled with a very specific sort of dread at the thought of reading more of these things. Eventually you reach an understanding, the kind Spencer Krug epitomized in his line from Sunset Rubdown’s song Dragon’s Lair: “This one’s for the critics, and their disappointed mothers.”

A couple weeks ago I saw on Reddit that Pitchfork had released its Best 100 Songs for the year. I didn’t know they did that, but it seemed totally in keeping with what I assume is that site’s mission statement, which puts itself above other sites that pander for clicks with endless anodyne listicles. In reality, the likes of Pitchfork do something far more menacing—reducing art to a numbered grade.

The best music takes a while to sink in. Like a good story, those are the albums that remain with you. They mean something different at different stages of your life. That’s part of the magic of great art.

But there were no Strokes songs on the top 100. Setting aside my disappointment, I figured while I was there I may as well see what grade Pitchfork had bestowed upon the band’s newest output, The New Abnormal, released in April.

Ah, a 5.7. Sluggish and slight. That figures.

It puts me in mind of something Jay Bauman said during a recent Red Letter Media re:View of Twin Peaks: The Return. He’d stumbled upon a four-to-five hour video review of the season, which promised to “explain” everything. Even funnier than that arrogant premise were the breathless comments stacked underneath it. Now I know what to think about Twin Peaks! Thank you! I finally understand!

Rather than perform their intended duty, at least to my mind, of serving as a guide for new additions to our cultural framework—maybe provide a little backstory, or fun facts about the production, anything to help increase one’s understanding—reviewers often seem to revel in their ability to cordon off certain elements they deem insufficient. Meanwhile, uncertain listeners have taken to rushing to reviews of new work like weary travelers ready to sink into a comfortable chair.

It’s a lament Julian Casablancas, lead singer of the Strokes, has often levied, that the internet was a potential source for incredible rates of musical discovery; you could literally find a new song from anywhere in the world.

But that possibility has been diminished, as is humanity’s habit of reaching for the skies only to get sucked back down into the muck of our natures. L’embarras de choix, and all that. We end up going with what’s safe: clicking on carefully curated lists, maybe from Spotify, maybe from Barack Obama, that do the work for us. Or we just read a review of new music on Pitchfork, and tailor our taste accordingly. If it raves about the new work, we’ll listen; if not, we’ll steer clear.

Personally, I’ve always felt most comfortable abiding by the Seven Years in Tibet principle when it comes to interacting with a new piece of art. A terribly boring and mawkish movie, the kind that had such a strange nineties niche, but one that will remain with me forever because it contains a passage in the form of a letter read aloud by Brad Pitt to his erstwhile lover, or wife (I can’t honestly remember) that was so beautiful it made sitting through the film worth it. Just for that moment.

How do you represent that it in a numbered grade? Why do we feel the need to grade work after we’ve left school?

The New Abnormal is the Strokes’ first music since 2016, and the first full-length album since Comedown Machine in 2013, which ended on the fateful lyric “Close the door…not all the way.” Back in summer 2017, rumor erupted that the band was convening for a new album with producer Rick Rubin. The band quickly doused the flames, most humorously through Casablancas.

That new music from the Strokes should be eagerly anticipated is understandable; the band has always been an incontrovertible force in the realm of Rock & Roll. I think of an anecdote by a New York City-based journalist about one of the band’s first sold-out shows in the city. Andre 3000 was in the crowd, apparently, and as he watched these kids barely out of their 20’s corral a crowd with such a captivating sound and a clenched fist of a setlist, the journalist turned in the rapper’s direction midway through the show and saw that his jaw had hit the floor.

Since that explosion onto the scene, the band’s bumpy trajectory has been well-chronicled. Casablancas’s lyric, from his solo album Phrazes for the Young, after the Strokes had gone on hiatus after the release of their third album, First Impressions of Earth, is apropos: “I live on; the frozen surface of a fireball.” Each band member has embarked upon some sort of career in music away from the band, with guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. the most prolific, and Casablancas the most esoteric.

The sparse output from the Strokes in the past decade, viewed amidst the frequent rumblings of creative tension within the band, made some people confident to put forth the opinion that these guys just didn’t like each other anymore and only convened to cash in on lucrative festival headlining appearances. During an interview with Casablancas this past spring, a journalist noted that vein of gossip. “Hmm…” Casablancas said. “I wonder which chords are making people think that.”

The Strokes are brothers—that’s a frequent refrain from Casablancas—they fight, but they’ll always have each others’ backs. There’s the tour video the band made during their come-up, so full of youthful insouciance, the endless possibility of a trip abroad at that age.

They are often frozen in time by fans and pop culture alike. Which speaks to the impossibility of pleasing anyone with their future releases; I think of something Jimmy Eat World’s frontman Jim Adkins said during a break in a festival performance in 2018. We haven’t stopped making music since “The Middle…” Cut to Debbie Harry saying something similar as she prepares to belt out Blondie’s Greatest Hits one more time.

Whether it’s their immortalization in nostalgia-laden works like Meet Me in the Bathroom, or Shia LaBeouf wearing one of their t-shirts in the first Transformers movie, the Strokes were cemented in their status as a cultural relic of the early 2000s. The saviors of rock!

It’s understandable; Is This It’s release mere days after 9/11 means that it will always be viewed as a means of helping people heal through unspeakable tragedy. A way of helping New York, and to a larger extent the nation, fight back against despair.

That performs a number of disservices. Fans’ attention will be forever cast back to the heady glow of those first two albums, Is This It and Room on Fire, reveling in the catchy guitar riffs and Casablancas’s croon. Jay McInerney described the lead singer best, twice, in an article he wrote for New York Times Magazine ahead of the band’s third album. Baby-suckled-on-absinthe face; it’s always 3 a.m. in that voice.

Now they’re continually recycled amongst the hipster crowd of youth culture that loves the look of their retro t-shirts and knows they’ll be considered “cool” if they like their music. The shows sell out instantly; I had the surreal experience this past February of being in Paris the night of their show at the Olympia. Impossible to get tickets.

I long ago accepted that I’ve aged out of their live performance appeal, getting smushed in the pit amongst concert-goers a decade younger—at least. Which is fine. I always enjoyed their music most on my own. Hard to Explain hitting home on a plane over Europe when I was 21, the album Angles coming out at one of my lowest ebbs; then, The New Abnormal during the interminable torpor of Covid-issue lockdown.

It’s along the lines of what they used to say of Rilke: that every time he left your company, you weren’t sure if you were seeing him for the last time. An air of uncertainty, or maybe mystique is the better sentiment. Every time I fear the Strokes have finally left for good, they always come back.

I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly about The New Abnormal moved me so deeply. There are references to the band’s past, to be sure, but also some quite considerable steps in a new direction. Heard in the right kind of mood, “At The Door” can be devastating. “Not the Same Anymore” and “Ode to the Mets” too.

Those last two tracks in particular serve as a metaphorical one-two punch that leaves me, more often than not, in a blubbering mess. And wanting more.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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