The New Abnormal Review
The Strokes were never a very complicated band. By keeping to simple chord progressions, poppy hooks, and approachable lyrics, they carved out a spot in radio-friendly indie rock that few have managed to rival. For years they dominated magazine covers, headlined festivals, and were staples of the MTV music video scene. However, as time moved on, so did the public, and, following a few disappointing releases in the early 2010s, one of America’s biggest bands went seven years without releasing an album. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, they announced a 2020 album release paired with a Bernie Sanders rally debuting a few of the new songs. It is safe to say hype was at an all-time high. And why wouldn’t it be? The singles were good, and they still seemed to have that signature songwriting ability that helped define the garage rock scene of the early 2000s. But nearly twenty years after their smash debut Is This It?, one had to wonder, did The Strokes really need to come back?
The Strokes seemed to feel the same way, setting out to reinvent themselves with The New Abnormal. What came was an album entirely unique, yet comfortingly familiar. The most apparent change was the song structure. TNA contains The Strokes’ five longest tracks, each clocking in at over five minutes. It also only features nine tracks total, the fewest of any their albums. The haunting tracks, “At the Door”, and “Ode to the Mets”, create vast soundscapes, focusing on confusing and complicated lyrics that leave the listener adrift in a space, uncomfortable and uncertain, during their lengthy runtimes. Juxtaposed are songs like “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” or “Bad Decisions” which are incredibly familiar for Strokes fans but defy expectations with depressing lyrics and strange outros or B sections. The Strokes have gone for quality over quantity and committed to longer runtimes and more complicated songs. In every case, The Strokes are doing something unique and different, redefining themselves in new and interesting ways.
Bolder, even, was The Strokes’ approach to production. So well known for their underproduced and raw sound, The Strokes maintained that unfinished approach to much of their later work. 2011’s Angles was perhaps The Strokes’ most committed push toward hi-fi, only to have them reel back with 2013’s Comedown Machine. Yet, The Strokes were clearly committed to high production with The New Abnormal, even teaming up with legendary music producer Rick Rubin. The sound is truly unique, as it manages to improve and flesh out the instrumentation while keeping the core Strokes aesthetic alive, something Angles never quite did. Tracks like “The Adults are Talking” use minimal vocal filtering (something The Strokes almost always employed) and boast clean, easily followed instrumentation, while maintaining very Strokes-like guitar tones and drums. “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” commits more to synth and electronic sounds, as opposed to traditional garage rock elements, yet uses a very familiar chord progression and bass line that truly sells it as a Strokes’ song.
The album’s lyrical content is soaked in alienation, paranoia, defeatism, and a strange cynical optimism, which all absolutely nail the new abnormal of our year 2020. This is not new territory for The Strokes, as they have always managed to come across as teenagers choked and pushed down by the adult world around them. But The New Abnormal really takes this aspect to the extreme. “Ode to the Mets” brings in a looming adult figure which Julian claims has him under his thumb. “The Adults are Talking” has Julian singing, “They will blame us, crucify and shame us / We can’t help it if we are a problem.” The problem? We have no idea. But herein lies the beauty of The Strokes’ lyrics—you can fill in the blanks yourself. The intangible “he” can be anyone you want, and the “problem” can be anything you are experiencing. The Strokes allow you to relate yourself to these situations by being intentionally vague, which creates a more intimate listening experience. This is nothing groundbreaking, as most pop music does the same, but what is unique and interesting about The New Abnormal is that you also really feel like you’ve been in these situations, even when you haven’t. On “The Adults are Talking” Julian sings “I know you think of me when you think of her”, and, it really makes you feel like you’ve been in a situation like that, even when you have not. The Strokes manage to create memories and experiences for you simply through their lyrics.
The most “un-Strokes” track on the album would have to be “Eternal Summer”, a divisive track that has received mixed reception from fans. While it manages to hit all the right spots to not feel entirely out of place, it is certainly the track that stands out the most. This track features the least consistent production on the entire album, switching completely from heavily produced, glamorous verses to robotic, gritty, and somewhat unnerving choruses. This track also features abundant experimentation with vocal filtering, something The Strokes leave out of almost every other track. Its lyrical content is also very disorganized, yet still manages to send home the theme of climate change, something which reappears on “Ode to the Mets”, maintaining the bleak and paranoid outlook of the other tracks. Lines like “They got the remedy / But they won’t let it happen” and “Everybody’s on the take / Tell me are you on the take too?” ultimately save it from being a complete outlier.
The highlight of the album must be “At the Door”, perhaps the most unique Strokes song released to date. Serving as the first single, At the Door instantly sets the tone that new Strokes’ material will be different. The general structure is very simple, the verses contain stripped back and simple instrumentation that has become a staple of the album. Relying on the synth, your mind fills in the gaps between Julian’s isolated voice and the droning backdrops. After being lulled into a calmness, the track ascends with a beautiful chorus breaking through the silence. Hopeful and uplifting harmonies and guitar chords counter Julian’s chilling vocals, serving as the foundation for lonely, dejected lyrics. The track feels like the bliss one might feel at the end of the world. The song fades away with the eerie outro, Julian echoing “I’ll be waiting from the other side” over long booming synths. It’s a track that manages to haunt and bewilder at the same time, balancing between a playful space odyssey and complete unmanageable horror.
In a strange year, The New Abnormal has managed to make sense out of some of the most confusing emotions and feelings. Everything has changed, and, this time, The Strokes have too—for the better. By being unapologetically bold and inventive, The Strokes have released an album that manages to counter and compliment the sound a generation of indie-rock was built on, and to push it in a fresh direction. Whether or not we have more Strokes’ content in store, it may be one of the few things we soon have to look forward to. In the meantime, let’s enjoy what we have, it’s not every day the five of them can get together and make something truly special.