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Over It: The Strokes Are Still Ultra Cool and Totally Exhausted—Just 20 Years Older

‘The New Abnormal,’ the band’s first full-length since 2013, is a different record from the old Strokes you remember, but it shares a thread with their classics

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The last three songs on the new Strokes record are called “Why Are Sundays So Depressing,” “Not the Same Anymore,” and “Ode to the Mets.” Bleak. Sheesh. In February, the band performed two other, moderately peppier new tunes, “At the Door” and “Bad Decisions,” at a Bernie Sanders rally in New Hampshire. Sheesh. The Strokes’ brash and grouchy and defiantly tuneful brand of garage rock revivalism has not been in vogue for most of their 20-year career. Sheesh. Yes, the Strokes have been around for 20 years. Sheesh. Mets ace Noah Syndergaard had Tommy John surgery in late March. Sheesh. Also the whole 2020 MLB season might very well be canceled, along with all other sports everywhere and most of the culture. Sheesh. Various other things have recently gone wrong. Sheesh. Hit it, boys!

The Strokes, in their infancy and not coincidentally their prime, doing a sublimely pissy “Take It or Leave It” on Late Show With David Letterman in 2002 is as close as this band has ever gotten, IMHO, to expressing joy, or enthusiasm, or for that matter, youthful abandon. They were grumpy old souls from their monumental 2001 debut Is This It forward, from that album title forward; I associate them mostly with super-catchy exasperation and an ultra-cool sort of total exhaustion. And as they have evolved into throwback-to-a-throwback veterans and desultory festival headliners, the national mood has sunk to greet them, in let’s say the past month especially. Their time, as it turns out, was not then, but now. Right now. Sheesh.

Yes, The New Abnormal, the band’s first full-length album since 2013’s lower-key-than-usual Comedown Machine, is out Friday. The album has been named that for a while. Impressive! As with every band everywhere, their tour dates are now hella postponed. I like this record quite a bit, and it depresses the hell out of me, and, yeah: “Ode to the Mets.” The tempo is a weary lope. The mood is extra desultory now, given the absence of all festivals. And the still-potent majesty of all five (original!) Strokes combined, as audibly antagonistic and reliably charismatic as ever, doesn’t fully kick in until an agonized crescendo of a finale that recalls the glum melody of Is This It’s opening title track and the pulverizing glumness of [gestures vaguely at current affairs] all this shit.

Gone now are the old times
Forgotten, time to hold on the railing
The Rubik’s Cube isn’t solving for us

Frontman Julian Casablancas still sounds profound when he murmurs and indestructible when he bellows and impressively painful when he reaches for his falsetto, and it’s time to bellow now:

Old friends long forgotten
The old ways at the bottom of the ocean
Now has swallowed the only thing that’s left is us

I couldn’t tell you offhand which part of this has anything to do with the Mets, other than all of it.

So pardon the silence
That you’re hearing is turning
Into a deafening, painful, shameful roar

That’s the way this record ends. Rock ’n’ roll! It’s not that The New Abnormal, produced by Rick Rubin in what appears to be an extra-Zen manner, is a total downer, or that its weariness and raggedness translates necessarily into lifelessness. I am one of those super-irritating people at parties (remember parties?) who will tell you that my favorite Strokes record is their third, 2005’s First Impressions of Earth, which is shrill and bonkers and overlong and just absolutely fed the fuck up with everything and everyone. I love it. “I’m tired of everyone I know.” “My feelings are more important than yours.” “We could drag it out but that’s for other bands to do.” “I’ve got nothing to say / I’ve got nothing to say / I’ve got nothing to say / I’ve got nothing to say.” “They love you or they hate you but they will never let you be.” “You’re no fun / You’re no fun / You’re no fun / You’re no fun.”

It’s a lot of fun, seriously. And thus I love it, too, on “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” when The New Abnormal’s sharpest hook consists of Casablancas semi-bellowing, “I want new friends / But they don’t want me.” I am primarily into the Strokes for the grudgingly playful rapport between guitarists Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi, which is apparently immortal, and nudges sleepy opener “The Adults Are Talking” into a sitting if not dancing position. Guitars! The closest this record comes to vintage Strokes—to propulsion, to power-pop triumph, to the jangle and the strut—is “Bad Decisions,” the first of two consecutive songs to interpolate an old ’80s New Wave hit, in this case Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself,” which BTW turned out to be 39 years ahead of its time.

The second ’80s-to-’20s translation is even weirder, and also somehow better: “Eternal Summer” is a splendid dirge, bolstered by giant chiming piano chords and a chorus, delivered by Casablancas in an extra-painful falsetto, that borrows its melody from the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You.” Except now it goes:

Summer is coming
We’ll go away
Summer is coming
It’s here to stay

I don’t know about that, pal. He switches to a scream, almost, during the extra-noisy bridge, which doesn’t interpolate anything other than current events:

I can’t believe it
Life is such a funny journey
Psychedelic
This is the 11th hour

Hercules, your service is no longer needed
It’s just like make believe
They got the remedy, but they won’t let it happen
They got the remedy, but they won’t let it happen

Take it or leave it! Anyone looking for the old Strokes, or the somewhat media-generated mirage of the old Strokes, will emerge from The New Abnormal even more baffled than the band intended, which is saying something. But it’s heartening, truly, to watch these fellas adapt to increasingly baffling circumstances, including the reality of them all being 20 years older. The stormy synth-pop ballad “At the Door” is a far cry from the swaggering rage of, say, “New York City Cops,” which was pulled from the Is This It tracklist back in 2001 for obvious reasons, but by February 2020 was sufficiently softened by time to be performed as part of a Bernie Sanders rally. But the defiance, and the charisma, and the awfully winsome exasperation is all still there. “Use me like an oar,” Casablanca moans, at least trying to be helpful. “Get yourself to shore.”

They’re here for you. This, for example, is the most relatable bit of Strokes content imaginable.

Yes, it’s the most dangerous band in rock ’n’ roll hanging out super-awkwardly on video chat, attempting to promote their new album amid increasingly ridiculous circumstances, and all clearly wishing they could mute themselves forevermore. Like most pop music released in this tumultuous time, The New Abnormal in retrospect—if retrospect is still a thing we get to have—will be inextricable from this time, from the frustration and the isolation and the occasional burst of life-affirming insubordination one theoretically gets from screaming back into an abyss that’s constantly screaming into all of us. It’s hard to explain. It’s exhausting. But now maybe you know how they’ve felt all along.