When the album art for the Strokes’ fifth album was revealed, fans with any knowledge of the band’s recording contract had to chuckle. The artwork was simple and bold, a red background with the group’s record label, RCA, plastered across the top, dominating the design. This layout, in light of the fact that Comedown Machine is the band’s fifth album for its five-album contract with RCA, seemed to be ominous. This is, after all, an album with “comedown” in the name — an album that could very well be the Strokes’ last record considering their contract. Listeners have to wonder, then: Is This It for the Strokes?
It’s almost impossible, when listening to Comedown Machine, to not search for traces of the early days of the band, back when vocals were filtered, Albert still had his fro and you could almost expect Julian Casablancas to chuck a microphone across the stage of any given performance. The Strokes seemed to revive American rock overnight, but more importantly they had a good time doing it. But with the release of the band’s 2011 LP, Angles, we began to see a new Strokes — a group of men who now had families and solo careers, who had grown apart and gotten a little pissy in the process, who couldn’t even be bothered to get together to actually record the album.
But we have to remember that Angles, with all of its 1980s-inspired hooks, at least prepared us for the change in sound found in the fifth album. Hell, to call Comedown Machine 1980s-inspired would be an understatement: The title song is called “80’s Comedown Machine.” No, the Strokes aren’t quite the same band that they used to be at all.
Unfortunately, while the Strokes have indeed evolved, they have failed to progress in many instances on Comedown Machine. The album has a clean, upbeat sound that’s less cigarettes and Converse and more e-cigs and neon Adidas. “Welcome to Japan” is a flashy, snappy track that bumps along until it hits a chorus that fails to take itself seriously let alone make coherent sense. Musically, it bears strong resemblance to Julian’s highly electronic solo work, but lyrically, it reads like a drunken Facebook chat. Julian begs the listener to come over on Wednesday, later adding, “welcome to Japan” in a tone reserved for greeting tourists, along with the mysterious line “scuba dancing touchdown” in a deep, mock-sensual voice. The Strokes have never been known for ground-breaking lyrics, but at least they used to actually mean something.
Comedown Machine also surprises us with falsetto, an awkward first for the Strokes (this is Julian Casablancas we’re talking about — his voice is like dark chocolate smoking a cigarette wrapped in velvet, OK). Julian’s high register in “Chances” renders the song pretty much a joke, and yet, it’s a joke that boasts a pretty damn catchy melody. “One Way Trigger,” the first single off the album, features the same falsetto that prompted unsuspecting first-listeners to wonder, “Is this even the Strokes?”
“Partners in Crime” similarly kicks off semi-offensively with a juddering guitar that’s obnoxious more than anything, but the song blooms into a buzzing, perky thing with an infectious chorus. It’s a rather delightful track, but unfortunately the Strokes had to provide an alter-ego with “50/50,” a quick, angry little monster that attempts but fails to harness the intensity found in old flames like “Reptilia” or “Juicebox” or, hell, even “Take It Or Leave It.” The chorus sounds like something you’d hear blaring from behind an eighth-grade boy’s closed door after he just “discovered punk.” And yet, and yet, and yet … Julian’s voice sounds great with the filter on. Oh, how we’ve missed that filter.
Comedown Machine begins to wind down around “Happy Ending,” a misnomer for several reasons — the first being that it’s not the last track. The album actually ends with “Call It Fate, Call It Karma,” a beautiful, vintage-sounding track that features a filtered Julian — his vocals soft and romantic — with dreamy flourishes of warm instrumentation including what sounds like cellos. The track feels out of place compared to the jaunty, fast-paced pieces that compose most of Comedown Machine, but “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” really is the saving grace of the album.
The music video for “All the Time” — the second single off Comedown Machine — shows a montage of clips from the Strokes’ past and present. While most of the video consists of clips of past performances, there’s plenty of extraneous footage as well — Nikolai flipping off the camera, Julian eating grapes, the boys playing ping pong and shooting toy guns. The Strokes look like they’re having fun in the video because they are having fun, and it sounds like they were on Comedown Machine as well. Hell, the song “Slow Animals” ends with the sound of the Strokes laughing — a sound we’ve all missed.
While the band isn’t planning on touring for this album, Nikolai offered a glimmer of hope for the future of the Strokes in an interview with BBC. “We just finished the album and I feel good about it and the atmosphere in the band. Hopefully it continues.” The Strokes don’t have to make any more albums under RCA, and fans might not be too pleased with the direction their music has been heading, but we can’t help agreeing with Nikolai in that we all still hope the Strokes keep on being the Strokes.