The New Abnormal sees The Strokes return to a familiar sonic landscape with a newfound lyrical maturity, to somewhat mixed results.
The New Abnormal is the distinct product of a band that has tumbled through the millennium’s first two decades and managed to shake off the grit. The Strokes have honed their sound enough to know what works and where they can expand, and with their latest record they have reversed course from 2013’s catch-all of bad experiments, Comedown Machine. Instead, they smartly return to the familiar embrace and working formula of nifty bass riffs and JC’s signature falsettos. While the album isn’t carbon copy of either Is This It or Room on Fire, nor does it reach those heights, many of The New Abnormal’s tracks could fit neatly on those tracklists — zone out for a moment here and it’s easy to be swept up in the throwback sonic textures of the early aughts. The New Abnormal isn’t just looking backward, however, embracing some synthy electronic elements and featuring a more pronounced keyboard presence, as well as clearer vocals. At its best, on songs like “At the Door,” an early release, and “Why Are Sundays So Depressing,” the album strikes an effective balance between the old and new, expressing a back-to-basics kind of evolution.
However, it’s the album’s messaging that delivers the clearest sign that things have changed. A mood of brooding and self-doubt tinges everything and clearly establishes a new philosophy — the confidence of 2005’s “You Only Live Once” has transformed into more of an imminent, existential threat. Strain your ear enough to discern Casablancas’s chronic mumble, and you’ll hear whispered words of longing, nostalgia, and, bizarrely, friendship (in fact, platonic love is a focus on four of the album’s nine tracks). Even the band’s expression of romantic love has matured, from the primal, rock-star haste of 2003’s “meet me in the bathroom” to “I’ll be waiting there outside, yeah, please don’t be long” (“Selfless”). To hear these new musings applied on top of familiar, older Strokes’ sounds admittedly creates a palpable dissonance, one that can be disorienting and, at times, disappointing. So while it’s tempting, and not entirely unfair, to argue that the rockers play it safe on The New Abnormal, there remains enough intentionality and lyrical self-awareness — “gone now are the old times” in the album’s closer, “Ode to the Mets” — to suggest that, for better and worse, they’ve simply grown up.
Published as part of Pop Rocks | Q2 2020 – Part 1.