Two years have lapsed since The Strokes' not so well-received Angles was released. Angles, however, was not a one-off in the band’s gradual shift toward a new aural theme. For anyone who thought The Strokes would return to the original sound that made them so successful, one ought to have known better based on their decision to collaborate with Ke$ha last year (Warrior’s “Only Wanna Dance With You”). That being said, there’s nothing wrong with a band straying away from a style that made them famous—though it seems that fans and critics alike are wont to disagree. Considering the fact that The Strokes have failed to impress the critical masses since 2003’s Room on Fire, it seems that people delight in their supposed artistic failings. Perhaps, when it comes to defending the band from their detractors, lead singer Julian Casablancas said it best on 2006’s First Impressions of Earth: “I’ve got nothing to say.”
Opening with “Tap Out” (a song with faint traces of The Strokes’ former garage rock sound), a visceral guitar intro segues into a more 80s aural motif—establishing the tone for most of the remainder of the album and continuing the auditory legacy of Angles. “All the Time,” the first single from the album, sees Casablancas in a particularly vocally dronish mode as he sings, “All the time that I need is never quite enough/All the time that I have is all that’s necessary.” The accompanying video is a montage of old tour clips seemingly designed to make us remember The Strokes in their original form, which is to say, critically lauded.
The third track, “One Way Trigger,” begins fancifully enough with 80s-style keyboard music that echoes the vibe of Angles. In an endearingly feminine, uncertain voice, Casablancas croons, “You asked me to stay, you asked me to stay/But there’s a million reasons to leave.” Ultimately, the track comes across as one of the most single-friendly songs on Comedown Machine. “Welcome to Japan” sees The Strokes showcase their own version of a Japanese-influenced song as Casablancas continues conjuring smoking barrel imagery with the lyrics, “Didn’t want to notice/Didn’t know the gun was loaded.” The song evokes a somehow sinister vibe as Casablancas says, “Welcome to Japan” in a tone that comes across as sarcastic and laden with false promises.
Next up is “80s Comedown Machine,” which could easily have been placed at one of the bookends of a John Hughes movie (think Thompson Twins’ “If You Were Here.” As the most unapologetic song in terms of not trying to masquerade as garage rock, there is something particularly honest and charming about this mildly-tempoed approach. With the melancholy urging, “So please run away,” one gets an overwhelming sense of lugubriousness—but in a good way. The track can best be described as something of a sequel to “Ask Me Anything.”
Subsequently, “50/50” changes gears to a more enlivening pace that could pass for a cover of some grandiose 60s song. As the splitting point on the album, the song title seems more than appropriate. Yet again, The Strokes appear to show vague signs of an identity crisis as they aim to please classicists with an Is This It? sound. The band transitions quickly back to the sort of music they’re currently committed to making with “Slow Animals.” A mid-tempo, guitar-rich sound pervades this number, while a mildly irritated Casablancas asserts, “You don’t have to be so down/Everyone can hear you in this whole damn crowd.” It is by far one of the most standout songs on the album after “One Way Trigger.”
“Partners in Crime” signals a more dramatic shift in the album as we segue into the third act, so to speak. It can best be described as a frenetic, primeval song that would make the soundtrack for a remake of Bonnie and Clyde. With lyrics like “Why aren’t we leaving town?” and “We don’t belong,” Casablancas alludes to a desire to escape due to feeling ostracized—or quite possibly as a result of committing a crime. Subsequently, “Chances” displays a bittersweet tinge for two reasons: 1) Just as the band is finally exhibiting genuine confidence on the album, you realize it’s about to end and 2) Casablancas laments, “I play your game, I play your game" over slow guitar riffs.
Incidentally, “Happy Ending” is not the last track on the album, which is somewhat telling about how the band feels regarding their future. Returning to a synth sound as the album winds down, Casablancas pleads, “Baby, show me where to go/Some things I don’t wanna know…/I’m not awake anymore/Seems I’ve changed my mind two thousand times before.” In the grim climate of 2013, it is as though Casablancas is addressing that what everyone wants to hear when it comes to reality is that it’s just a grand spectacle and we’ll all find out it was all a joke any day now.
Concluding with “Call It Fate, Call It Karma”—which may soon be the title of the next Strokes biography—the ambience of the album transitions to an aural homage to The Zombies. Serene and dreamlike, it is the perfect choice to end with on a record entitled Comedown Machine. And, despite the consistent criticism that The Strokes will never recapture the greatness of Is This It?, I maintain that their style has only improved with each album.