The Strokes are a transportive band, not just in the tongue-in-cheek nostalgia of their stylistic references, but in the way their music can fixate you in memories. Of course, the music we hear at one time in our lives inherently grounds itself in our memories of that time, but this fact could not be more personally applicable to Is This It, the band’s bittersweet debut album, released in 2001.
Despite the youthful, incandescent brightness of that album, it often reminds me of how memories can be ambiguous and messy, distorting the way music hits your ears over time. Is This It is a complicated album for The Strokes, as both a playground of near-flawless, punchy jams and simultaneously a bar too high to be reached by the band’s later work.
Their latest album, The New Abnormal, attempts to free itself from the burden of memory, and the result is a genuinely fun — even if inconsequential — reminder of what The Strokes once were. It is wistful, grin-inducing and, at times, unbearably catchy. It doesn’t move mountains or break new ground or warrant another legendary SNL performance, but I’m certainly glad it’s here.
The New Abnormal is at its best when it regresses into The Strokes’ signature style; Julian Casablancas’ vocals fall somewhere between a croon and a mutter, with jaunty guitar licks that flow so effortlessly it hurts. “The Adults Are Talking” and “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” exemplify this return to familiarity without feeling like replicas of other Strokes material, balancing the line between comfort and freshness.
Undoubtedly the strongest track to fit this well-balanced familiarity is “Ode to the Mets,” which closes the album with such infectious sweetness that it overshadows almost everything else. There’s this guitar melody that finishes off the last two minutes, and it’s as ingenious as anything The Strokes have ever written. “Gone now are the old times / Forgotten, time to hold on the railing / The Rubik’s Cube isn't solving for us,” Casablancas muses over the riff. His words are undoubtedly sad, but I can’t help but smile at the sentiment every time. I find myself recalling these notes over and over again in my head, like sunspots in my vision.
As a complete playthrough, the album is pleasant even if it’s not totally engaging. Not every song is memorable, but the standouts earn their place. It’s been seven years since the last Strokes album, and in that time, a few of the band’s members have stayed busy with their own musical endeavors. These layers of influence add electronic, almost disco flare to tracks like “Eternal Summer” and “At the Door.” They approximate the soothing grime of Casablancas’ side project The Voidz without disrupting the album’s flow. And yet, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that these experiments with style are often the weak points of The New Abnormal.
However, just because the album fails to reinvigorate the sound of The Strokes doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be celebrated. To me, The Strokes’ return to making music is a medium to enjoy their work without the complex memories I have of their more polished albums. It’s fun, and yes, there are certainly more qualities a listener can ask of a Strokes album. But honestly, I can’t bring myself to care.