The Strokes put out their debut album, Is This It, almost 20 years ago. The album’s shadow hangs heavy over indie rock as a whole, but it hangs like the sword of Damocles over the band that made it. With such a long, established music career, the Strokes need to reckon with their early success and reflect on the dilemma all bands eventually face: grow or die. On The New Abnormal, the band’s most recent project, the group attempts to reconcile its desire to change with its desire to stay true to a fanbase that has very rigid expectations.
This approach to an album isn’t new — in fact, Weezer’s 2019 self-titled album also saw a rock band reckoning with previous sounds and a desire to grow. But the Strokes don’t seem to be as resentful of their past as other groups, and The New Abnormal is more celebratory than bitter. It is a confident, tongue-in-cheek duel of synths and guitars, battling for superiority in the establishment of a new Strokes sound.
The stage for this duel was set earlier in the year by two singles put out by the band, “At the Door” and “Bad Decisions.” From its title alone, “At the Door” screams future. It is synth-driven and cosmic, reminiscent of “Instant Crush,” lead singer Julian Casablancas’ collaboration with Daft Punk, with repeated, bare-bones lyrics and a building, intense crescendo. “Bad Decisions,” on the other hand, is as similar to an Is This It track as the album gets, with the same level of grit in the jumpy guitar patterns.
If these two songs established the incoming sonic struggle, the third single, “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” started it. It pits synth against guitar as Casablancas sings about going in circles and wanting new friends. Here, the band is torn by its legacy, literally in a transitional period from bridge to chorus. “The Adults Are Talking,” the first song on the album, sees the band formally introducing its conflict — it is looking to the future while accepting the past. The bass line is jumpy and the guitars are skittish. The uncertainty is palpable.
This uncertainty is also clear on “Eternal Summer,” which barrages the listener with a wide variety of sounds. At first, the plucky bass and high vocals sound like a song by the Weeknd, but the chorus’s grungy yelping is more Sex Pistols and the buzzy ending sounds like a Pink Floyd track. This song is the band in crisis, uncertain of what needs to be done to maintain its artistic integrity. Sonically, it’s the album’s weak point, but there’s a sense that this is deliberate, that the Strokes are claiming it’s better to know where they stand as a band than to try and be something they aren’t.
The parroting of other bands’ sounds is so common on The New Abnormal that it can’t be mere happenstance. “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” calls back to Weezer, with the dueling guitars reminiscent of 1994’s Weezer, and the methodical guitar at the beginning of “Not the Same Anymore” screams Death Cab for Cutie. The Strokes are bold and confident, daring another band to challenge their reign over rock music and fighting other bands on their own turfs.
“Ode to the Mets” greets the listener with an almost chiptune synth. After an album of conditioning the audience to treat the synth and guitar as enemies on a battlefield, it seems that the former wins in the record’s final moments. Then the guitar comes in, out of time, to drown out the synth. A ghostly synthesizer returns, transforming into brass as the guitar picking becomes quick, precise and repetitive. Casablancas’ vocals build, anthemic before he asks to bring in the drums. These slices of life in the studio are not only common throughout The New Abnormal, but they also bring the listener even closer to the band’s personal conflict. Casablancas boldly sings, “Learned all your tricks, wasn’t too hard,” almost taunting the competition. He sings, “I will not show my teeth too quick,” implying that this isn’t the end, and that the band has even more tricks up its sleeve.
In an album about transition and transformation, the musical smorgasbord available in this final song almost raises more questions than it answers about the Strokes’ future. One thing is certain, however: The Strokes are the best of indie rock, ready to fight whoever comes for their title.