The first time I tried to listen to the Strokes’ fifth album, Comedown Machine, I couldn’t get past the first song.
That is not compliment. This was not a “I just heard Seven Nation Army for the first time and must listen to it 37 more times immediately” situation. I didn’t know what I was listening to. This is the Strokes? This is my favorite band?
The Strokes have dealt with a perception problem that we’d probably all like to enjoy. Their debut album was almost universally regarded as the best album of the first decade of the 21st century – lauded by music critics for breaking down the teen pop era of the late 90’s and spawning a legion of followers and imitators.
Their follow up album, Room on Fire, picked up right where Is This It left off, but still threw people for a loop. Everyone just wanted the first album again.
I always got the sense the Strokes, as a band, reviled the success that came from Is This It. Not necessarily the accolades the album received, but the whole “Voice of a Generation” bullshit that came along with it. It didn’t help that the Strokes, a New York City band, landed square in the mainstream after 9/11. It seemed like they actually were the voice of a generation.
The backlash to that sort of thing – even in a pre-Facebook world – can be vicious and liking the Strokes quickly fell out of vogue. Even for the Strokes themselves; they didn’t seem to enjoy it. The energy and desire that pumped through speakers in the first two albums were all too distant in their last two efforts. While they made a few good songs, their last two albums featured too many songs that didn’t belong. Too many songs where the main emotion is apathy – the Strokes, especially on much of Angles, seemed like they didn’t want to be there.
So as Comedown Machine starts with a sound unlike you’ve heard before from the Strokes, it initially elicited a groan. They were changing their sound again, I thought. They’re trying to distance themselves further from Is This It, I thought. They still don’t care.
I let the playlist sit unplayed on my Spotify for a week. I couldn’t deal with what I thought was another subpar Strokes album. Even if I didn’t want to hear Is This It or Room on Fire rehashed, I wanted them to try.
I gave the album another listen after cleansing my music palette with a collection of guilty pleasures that would have me locked up for 10 to 20 if another living soul knew about it. I was ready to give it a try.
I wish I had that week back. I was missing out.
Comedown Machine excels in almost every possible way because what made the Strokes great was more than musicianship or lyrics or skill – it was the indefinable something that latches onto you and doesn’t let go. It forces you to pay attention. It forces you to listen. It forces you to enjoy. It forces you to hit repeat.
While the actual sound of Comedown Machine is a stark departure from the Strokes, it is really another Room on Fire in sheep’s clothing. The entire album captures a mood. The mood may be different to you than it is to me, but from song 1 through the end, it feels a certain way. I’m not describing it because I don’t want to ruin it for you.
One of the common criticisms I’ve read about the album is that it feels like it should have been the second Julian Casablancas’ solo album. Having listened to – and been disappointed by – said first solo album, those people are missing the forest for the trees.
The reason Comedown Machine sounds so different – and why I initially couldn’t get on board – is that the band has evolved, yet it is nowhere more striking than with Julian’s voice. On Is This It, Julian doesn’t play tricks, he doesn’t push his range and he doesn’t leave his sweet spot. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, by the way. On his first studio album, Julian went with his best stuff, like Nolan Ryan throwing fastball after fastball. It worked for Nolan, it worked for Julian.
On Comedown Machine, Julian’s voice is less of another instrument, and more of a weapon. On One-Way Trigger, he seamlessly vacillates between the singing voice he is known for and a wicked falsetto. On 80s Comedown Machine, he sings slowly and calculated – it meanders through the verses of the record before dipping into his signature style of dragging out words and bringing unknown life to the them.
The lyrics, from beginning to end, are classic Strokes. Great music, like great art, poetry prose, should engage people differently. When he sings on Chances about waiting but moving on his own, you can picture Julian walking away from the band or a girl. While on their last two albums, the Strokes tried to become too spot-on with lyrics, they returned to more familiar terrain with significant results.
My favorite Strokes song, then, now and forever, is Trying Your Luck. I have listened to that song thousands of times in my life. I still could not tell you what the song is actually about. But I’ve latched on to some of the lyrics – most notably, “I lost my page again, I know this is so rare, but I’ll try my luck with you” – and superimposed them on my life. Isn’t that how music is supposed to work?
Comedown Machine gives us a taste of what made the Strokes so “cool” in the beginning. It always felt like they were in on a joke that the rest of the world wasn’t privy to. They were the kids in the jean jackets, smoking cigarettes in the parking lot and cracking jokes that only the others would laugh at. The snark, the wry smile, the wink that their last two albums lacked has returned.
Welcome to Japan is actually a beautiful song but completely overshadowed by two of the funniest Strokes lyrics. During the bridge, you can literally hear Julian smirking as he sings, “Scuba-Dancing….Touchdown.” Yet that pales in comparison to the “What kind of an asshole drives a Lotus?” lyric that I had to steal to entitle this rant/love letter.
To be honest, I still don’t know why that’s funny – who the hell even drives a Lotus? Maybe that’s the point.
For the first 10 songs, Comedown Machine is a very, very good album that I would recommend anyone listen to. But the reason I’ve written over a thousand words on a lazy Sunday night is due in large part to the last one. I buried the lede because the Strokes buried their best song.
Call It Fate, Call It Karma is not a Strokes song. It’s not a song from this decade. It’s a song that should be played on a record player and viewed through a fuzzy, black and white screen. It is a timeless, thought-provoking, endearing love song.
The beauty of the Strokes, and why they have remained my favorite band over the past 12 years, is that they always seem to have a trick up their sleeve. On Is This It, the last song was a lyrical middle finger to the world – and one of the best live David Letterman performances I’ve ever seen. On Room on Fire, they ended with the upbeat, hilariously titled I Can’t Win – as if they knew no one was going to like their album.
For Comedown Machine, they went against the script. A slow, jazzy song that should be listened to sitting down? How is that the end to a Strokes album?
But it works, and does so perfectly. The lyrics that kick off the chorus strike like an arrow through your heart:
“Can I waste all your time here on the sidewalk? / Can I stand in your light just for a while?”
Who hasn’t been there? We can all remember a time in our life, standing on a sidewalk, talking to a guy or girl we liked and hoping they would never leave.
With age comes perspective. Whether you’re 16, 30 or 52, you know that feeling. The entire album speaks to a maturity, both lyrically and musically, that the Strokes had been searching for since Room on Fire but couldn’t find it.
They finally did.
The only thing I don’t like about the album is the finality of it all. They searched for nearly a decade to replicate their success. They needed to grow and evolve to do so. They are far from the mainstream again – MTV ain’t inviting them to play the VMAs – and that’s the way they like it.
I’ve always wanted another Strokes album. But every time Call It Fate, Call It Karma concludes, and my mind is a million miles away – I’m okay with the end. If that’s the last Strokes I ever hear, I’ll be okay.
You shouldn’t write 1500 words about Comedown Machine – but you should listen to it.
Follow me on Twitter