Album Review: The Strokes – Comedown Machine

[RCA; 2013]

We’ve suspected, dreaded or flat out denied it for a while, but The Strokes have grown weary of being The Strokes. Their enthusiasm was at an all-time low on 2011’s begrudged Angles, like an actor on autopilot who’s still making films because he assumes he’s supposed to. They weren’t making garage tunes, and they weren’t making new wave or synthpop. They just made a mess and wanted full marks for showing up. The fire was more or less out.

While it may not float along with the same sense of continuous disconnect, Comedown Machine is in many ways The Strokes’ most anonymous release yet. There is, at present, no tour planned to promote it, the artwork is a grubby demo cover, and the music is barely recognizable as The Strokes. It is decisively, deliberately free of baggage or backstory. This is their attempt to fully escape their own event horizon, and crush any hope that purists have held out optimism for since Room on Fire.

Alas, this is the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ path that The Strokes are now condemned to walk forever. To their credit, they don’t want to waste your time if you came for scruffy tunes on a shoestring budget. “Gotta get my hands on something new/You won’t wanna be without this,” begins Julian Casablancas on “Tap Out,” quickly establishing the arrogant aloofness that endeared us to him in the first place. While the silhouetted guitars and the sprinklerhead percussion recall “Machu Picchu.” It almost sounds like Albert Hammond Jr., Nick Valensi, Fab Moretti and Nikolai Fraiture are having fun playing behind their frontman.

The best thing about Comedown Machine might be that it knows what it wants to be, even if it doesn’t quite succeed at being it. With ten 80s-inspired tunes in tow, “All the Time” now seems like an act of defiance. It stands alone sonically and, coincidence or not, it’s also the best song on the album. Conversely, the first cut we heard, “One Way Trigger,” is wholly unimaginative in its 80s apery. Given the yin/yang nature of these two previews, it would make sense that the rest of Comedown Machine falls somewhere in the middle. And it does, alternating between muscular glam rock, gaseous, percussionless experiments and even a pretty ballad or two. The Strokes have established a code this time around, and they stick to it.

While Comedown Machine drags itself through a number of dead zones (most notably the dud pair of the title track and “50 50”), there are moments where they recapture some of what made them a great band. Like “Automatic Stop” and “Taken for a Fool” before it, “Slow Animals” is another Casablancas chorus that proves just how capably he can capture melancholy. “Happy Ending” would be just that if it weren’t followed by “Call It Fate Call It Karma,” the most offputtingly bizarre and half-baked idea The Strokes have ever put their stamp on.

Other tracks sound like outtakes from Phrazes for the Young. Shockingly enough, that isn’t always a bad thing. You can practically see a disco ball when you close your eyes during “Partners in Crime”–coming soon to a middle school dance near you. The funniest part is that it wouldn’t work if it weren’t so disobligingly brazen; Casablancas’ falsetto is a love-it-or-hate-it vehicle, exchanging Lou Reed for a Beck/Prince hybrid. He uses his upper register more here than on every other Strokes album combined, and it’s often double-tracked with his more familiar doom-and-gloom croon. “Tap Out” and “Chances” almost sound like duets.

In addition to freeing them of their five-album commitment to RCA, Comedown Machine also represents the shortest turnaround between albums in The Strokes’ career. The ambiguity of their future is now as pronounced as ever. One hopes that this is a plea for a fresh start instead of their final statement. Either way, you should probably stick a few mothballs in that denim jacket hanging in your closet.