The Strokes - Comedown Machine | Track-by-track review
“They found our city under the water / Had to get our hands on something new”
—opening line from Comedown Machine
The Strokes are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
Stick to the script of Is This It, that is. Rehash their past glories and critics will say they are not evolving; evolve and critics will bash them for not repeating the highs of their early material. This is often the case with bands whose debuts light a fuse on an entire movement. As torchbearers, they progress and alienate disciples. But if they stubbornly plug away at the same sound, especially after a decade has passed, they are doomed to drive off the cliff of irrelevance as their sound inevitably loses flavor. Just about every dude with a guitar (well, every dude with a guitar in England) attempted to rip the Strokes’ sound. Therefore the Strokes abandoned it.
Yet the Strokes hedged their bets when promoting their fifth album, Comedown Machine, offering a bit of old and new. First, there was “One Way Trigger,” a weird propulsive number that raced along like caffeine-jitters calypso, with Julian Casablancas singing in an messy falsetto over a plucky keyboard riff. The official first single, “All the Time,” thundered away in an expensive garage with standard rock instrumentation and arena-sized aplomb. On paper, “Trigger” was the kooky new direction, while “Time” satisfied the purists. But frankly, the former was truer to the group’s original spirit of hyper-composed emotive speedsters with unconventional mixes. “All the Time” could pass for Pearl Jam. Neither is indicative of how the rest of the album sounds. At all.
In a way, the Strokes have pulled an inverse Blur. Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon grew sick of glossy arch Britpop and embraced messy American underground rock styles on 1997’s eponymous Blur LP. The Strokes drop their New Yorkisms for a slick continental approach. If there’s any trace of the Big Apple left, it’s the large shadow of Blondie, which pulled similar tricks late in its career. The party line says the quintet has delved deep into the ’80s. I think a better reference point is turn-of-the-millennium Paris—records like Phoenix’s United and Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend.
With that in mind, we begin:
A burst of guitar wankery slaps you in the face. The Strokes are clearing their throat, thumbing their nose at rock & roll, and lightening the mood. Quickly it slips into a Michael Jackson groove, breezy funk built from palm mutes, chorus pedals and cocaine solos. A relaxed Casablancas sings in airy high notes: “Drifting / You don’t want to know what’s going down.” The band has never sounded so mellow, and that mood carries through half the tracks. As for the other half…
“All the Time”
As I mentioned above, I don’t hear a resemblance to the first two albums, but this is loud and punchy. With the sound of the five of them playing together in a big studio, it more closely recalls First Impressions of Earth. It’s the only cut where their brains are willfully turned off and they merely bash away by instinct. It’s also the least interesting song here.
“One Way Trigger”
Casablancas sings in falsetto in many Comedown songs, but never quite as strained as on “Trigger.” I think that is intentional, as the lyrics concern a relationship in turmoil, but it did make for a difficult first pill to swallow. Otherwise, the frontman is in top form on the album, displaying remarkable range and sounding more engaged than he’s been in a decade. He also hasn’t sung this much about clumsy sex and girls since 2003. Just to add to this song’s abnormality: This is the only time an acoustic guitar makes an appearance.
“Welcome to Japan”
Packing two choruses, a thoughtful bridge, disco whistling, a fabulous solo and a killer punchline, “Japan” is the best Strokes single since “You Only Live Once,” their "Rapture." At least, if RCA knows what it’s doing. It’s just a blast. The most overlooked trait of Casablancas is his sense of humor. This is the first time in song he’s reminded audiences he’s a guy who loved MacGruber and joked about naming this album Rollerbladin’. Especially when he proclaims, “Oh, welcome to Japan!” before comically crooning, “Super dance-y funk down.” Or something. As destined as “I didn’t really know this / What kind of asshole drives a Lotus” is to become the most quoted line, the subsequent quasi-rapped chorus tops it: “Come on, come on, get with me / I want to see you Wednesday / Come on, come on, come over / Take it off your shoulder / Come on and call me over / We’ve got to get to work now / Sliding it off your shoulder / As we’re falling over.” Like four tunes cleverly compacted (one of which is last album’s “Taken for a Fool”), this is immaculate songcraft and maddeningly addictive.
“’80s Comedown Machine”
Somehow, nothing demonstrates the detailed composition of a song like an 8-bit cover version. It’s like pulling the face off a watch to see how all the gears work. There are no better examples than the Strokes turned Japanese low-tech. See here and here for examples. The hushed title track beats the Internet to the punch, sounding somewhat akin to a Nintendo cartridge playing “Chariots of Fire” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Casablancas faintly floats over the lulling mellotron loops. “Why don’t you close the blinds / for the night?” he gently pleads.
Now this, “All the Time,” is how you sound like classic Strokes. And, well, Soundgarden a tad, too. Badmotorfingering out of the gate with a “Rusty Cage” riff, this tense and sneering punker sees Julian pulling out his beat-to-shit Is This It microphone from a dusty box in his closet and snarling with a ferocity not heard since “Reptilia.” Also, if you listen closely, you can hear the singer say in the background, “…the record for the worst foul shot, in the history of the playoffs.” Because why not.
In time, Angles will be seen as a reboot. Much of that previous LP comes off as demos for Comedown Machine. The calmly cruising “Animals” in particular picks up from “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight” and “Two Kinds of Happiness,” fleshing out the concepts and polishing off the rough edges. Which means it's not too far off from Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage. Staccato, muted guitar, oscillating synthesizer and the most curiously hushed guitar solo in their history slowly crescendo. But don’t worry, a screeching solo follows a verse later. The guys collapse into laughter at the close, underlining their apparent rediscovered camaraderie. Despite the sea change in sound and the bizarre publicity omerta surrounding this release, the five come off as united and focused as they did in Bush’s first term.
“Partners in Crime”
Silly, bumblebee-buzzing hammer-ons from Nick Valensi, much like the album’s opening salvo, both mock classic rock and embrace its pleasurable ridiculousness. Atop a foundation of Adam Ant drum shuffle and “Lust for Life” jump (much akin to another Strokes song you are no doubt familiar with) by Fab Moretti, everyone has a blast on. “Leave all your tears alone / Run down your face,” Casablancas croons before coolly stating “I’m on the guest list” with winking sarcasm. Like “50/50,” part of the half of the album (ah, that title begins to make more sense) that could arguably fit on Room on Fire…
…unlike this here slow dance. There’s a subculture which I am ashamed to announce familiarity with. That would be the girls-obsessed-with-drawing-dreamy-fan-art-of-Julian-Casablancas scene. (Google it, it’s pretty funny.) This bound-to-be-polarizing one’s dedicated to all those crushin’ hard out there. A synth-heavy couple-skate oozing John Hughesian longing. “I waited for ya / I waited on ya / but now I don’t,” Casablancas sings in castrato-high falsetto in the shimmering disco lights. The most romantic ballad in their catalog. Roller rinks still exist, right?
Next to “Welcome to Japan,” the track most likely to dazzle the fans hungry for the Strokes to reclaim the impassioned energy of the early era. As “Slow Animals” and “Japan” muscled up Angles ideas, “Happy Endings” recycles the tick-tock guitars and sci-fi elements of “Macho Picchu,” adds a pinch of Room on Fire’s soul and ends with something wonderfully electrifying. As much as I adored it, Angles sounded pieced together in a computer by band members hardly communicating. Comedown Machine is the sound of a group invigorated, collaborating. With a loaded title, “Endings” would dazzle live. If they toured.
“Call It Fate, Call It Karma”
Dropping the curtain with the ultimate curve ball, “Fate” crackles like phonogram recording of a calliope playing Cuban rumba. To bring up Blur again, it loops in a strikingly similar fashion to “Optigan 1,” the coda to 13. “Close the door, not all the way,” Casablanca quietly sings. “Please understand / We don’t understand.” In the chorus, “I waited around…,” which naggingly brought to mind an older Strokes lyric I'm failing to place, he hits his highest notes yet, up the range of Frankie Valli or a Beach Boy. In its mix of the eerie and nostalgia, it could work in a David Lynch or Tim Burton flick. Come to think of it, it’s not too far off from what Karen O did for “Frankenweenie.” The Yeah Yeah Yeahs boldly went from wild riffage to sparkling disco and tender balladry. Who’s to say their New York brothers can’t follow?