“Don’t try and stop us, get out of our way,” Julian Casablancas last sang on 2011’s Angles. A questionable declaration then and especially now, some two years later where The Strokes have retreated from the bright festival lights and entombed themselves in the closed quarters of New York’s famed Electric Lady Studios. They haven’t toured, committed to press, or made any special public appearances — and there’s little indication that’ll change anytime soon. Even the band’s axiomatic spokesman Nikolai Fraiture has no clear answer as to what the hell’s going on with them. Last month, he told BBC Radio 1’s Zane Lowe with stunted optimism: I feel good about the atmosphere in the band Hopefully it can continue. In other words, who knows?
With Comedown Machine, one could speculate, Is this it? Eleven tracks and 40 minutes later, the New York outfit complete their infamous five album contract to RCA Records — and they don’t keep that a secret. The album’s faded cover art touts the label’s vintage logo right at the top, poking fun at said agreement and satiating the band’s longtime compulsion with retro fetishism. By factoring in the artwork, the album’s title (which could also double as a clever name for a Bush cover band), the lack of press or involvement on the band’s part such as a new video that’s nothing more than a nostalgic-leaning compilation of old footage, and suggestive track names like “Tap Out”, “Happy Endings”, or “Call It Fate, Call It Karma”, this could very well be it.
Whatever fate comes their way, it’s still the end of an era for The Strokes. It wipes their slate clean, shattering any legal constructs or feelings of immediacy that’s lingered over their heads since they put ink to paper pre-9/11. That’s both an exciting and erratic degree of change for Casablancas & Co., a collective who’s butt enough heads over the past decade to suffer multiple concussions. So, whether they march on, take a brief hiatus, or close up shop, Comedown Machine should be seen as the bookend to their 2001 landmark debut, Is This It.
In many ways, it is. On that album’s opening title track, Casablancas introduced himself as a tired, anxious romantic who lied to get inside girls’ apartments, a place where he wanted to stay “just for awhile.” He’s never shaken that persona and he wears it loud all the way to the final words on this album’s closing lullaby, ”Call It Fate, Call It Karma”. The difference now is that he schleps around this dire weight of desperation as he cries, “Can I stand in your light, just for awhile?” It’s a short, soft plea that’s soon washed away by the Cuban acoustics and strung out recording, but it’s a startling moment. Otherwise, Casablancas enrolls in the same school of thought, wearing the same Lou Reed-approved uniform and the same 70’s-styled head of greasy hair.
It’s the music that’s changed. Similar to Casablancas’ 2009 solo album, Phrazes for the Young, and their last run on Angles, Comedown Machine stretches into the Eighties limelight, mining parcels of new wave and pop. “One Way Trigger” tries on A-ha, “Chances” revisits The Cars, “Tap Out” double dips into New Order and Bananarama, “Welcome to Japan” exorcises the tangy eclecticism of Talking Heads, while the title to “80s Comedown Machine” isn’t misleading in the slightest.
Sure, Casablancas is an obvious culprit, but Albert Hammond, Jr. and Nick Valensi don’t sound too bothered. In fact, it’s their guitar work that rusts over the Reagan polish, retaining enough of that ’70s scuff to keep things familiar and fresh. They find youth on the dodgy “50/50”, complement Casablancas’ midnight croon during “Slow Animals”, and conjure up That Strokes Sound with “All the Time”. Fraiture and Fabrizio Moretti take backseat to all this, but their contributions feel more human than what they supplied for Angles.
That human element is by far the best attribute of Comedown Machine. Producer Gus Oberg, who worked alongside the band with their last effort, is no Gordon Raphael, but he’s mixed an agreeable balance here. (It also helps that Casablancas opted to record with his bandmates, too.) It’s comparable to the itchy sheen on 2003’s Room on Fire, only there’s a laidback vibe to the whole construct that’s somewhat new to The Strokes. True to the album’s title, it’s comfortable and less persuasive. The risks feel warranted, even if it doesn’t result in something that’s sticky or punchy. This might explain why the album doesn’t carry a single hit.
At this point, they don’t need it. Last gasp or new beginning, The Strokes have zero commitments to anyone and that’s the overall thesis behind Comedown Machine. They’re not looking to win anyone over; instead, they’re keeping it casual and that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, it was Casablancas who won over millions of fans some 12 years ago by demanding they “take it or leave it.” Now he’s calling their bluff.
Essential Tracks: “50/50”, “Tap Out”, and “Slow Animals”
Feature artwork by Dmitri Jackson: