I listened to The Strokes’ 2020 album “The New Abnormal” for the first time while running on the treadmill, expecting some up-tempo tracks (typical of The Strokes) to match my pace. Instead, I found myself slowing to a walk, following the lead of the album’s slower, moody jams.
A mainstay of 2000s rock, born out of apathetic ‘90s grunge and earlier rock icons like the Velvet Underground, The Strokes came onto the New York music scene in the late 1990s. They skyrocketed to popularity with their first album, “Is This It,” featuring now-classics like “Last Nite” and “Hard to Explain” that showcase frontman Julian Casablancas’s straightforward, emotive vocals and melodic guitars.
“The New Abnormal” isn’t earth-shattering. We don’t see the band largely diverge from their last full-length release, 2013’s “Comedown Machine.” Both albums evoke the 1980s synth-pop nostalgia and “Comedown Machine” was not received well critically. But there is something to be said for Casablancas’s blatant longing for the past and uncertainty about the future on this new 2020 record, an idea that wasn’t fully formed yet on The Strokes’ 2013 release. It’s a mood, enhanced by the album title, that feels particularly appropriate during these uncertain and ‘abnormal’ times in the world, however unintentional it was.
The album opens with “The Adults Are Talking,” a reflective track with energetic backing guitars and unique riffs that will feel familiar to longtime fans. Casablancas’s breathy, almost unintelligible vocals drift over it all and create a satisfying if not groundbreaking opener. The front half of the record is stacked with instant classics like this: they won’t attract many new fans for The Strokes, but they will please old ones.
“Selfless” creates a dream-pop aesthetic reminiscent of “80’s Comedown Machine,” the titular track from their last release and slides seamlessly into “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” a romp of a song with a tight synth rhythm and big percussive elements. And yet, the line “I want new friends, but they don’t want me,” is repeated throughout, lending a melancholy tone even to one of the album’s most upbeat songs.
“Bad Decisions” gives songwriting credit to Billy Idol for borrowing the melody to “Dancing with Myself,” which is arguably not the best choice after The Strokes’ 2001 hit “Last Nite” supposedly plagiarized Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” The song’s intro guitar also evokes major The-Cure-circa- "Friday I’m In Love” vibes.
We then downshift into the back half of the record, with darker-toned songs “Eternal Summer,” “At the Door” and “Not the Same Anymore.” The repetitive backing for these tracks only serves to showcase Casablancas’s crooning, high-pitched melodies. “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” is, well, depressing, and I can’t help but be reminded of the frontman’s 2014 side project, The Voidz, and their song “Human Sadness.”
Perhaps one of the more topical, relevant songs on the album, “Ode to the Mets” closes out “The New Abnormal” with a haunting synth melody and an homage to not only the Mets but to New York as a whole. The album was announced in early February before New York City became the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, but “Ode to the Mets” is almost prophetic — it’s a veiled love song to a city that’s been through hell.
So while “The New Abnormal” didn’t intend to be hailed as “crisis rock” by critics, it panders to a crowd who has been waiting since 2013 for the familiar rock they know and love from this band. Maybe it doesn’t contain much hope or inspiration, but the album does encapsulate the wistful longing for the past and uncertainty about the future that we’ve all been feeling.
“Gone now are the old times / Forgotten, time to hold on the railing,” sighs Casablancas on the last track. Nothing could feel more appropriate right now.
Edited by George Frey | email@example.com