By: Amanda McMillan
Rumours started swirling about the Strokes meeting with production legend Rick Rubin in 2017, but were shot down by guitarist Albert Hammond Jr, claiming the band had only met with him to discuss “some ideas.” Well, well, well. Looks like those ideas turned into a full album, with Rubin sitting in the producer chair. For those who perhaps think they don’t know any of Rubin’s work, here is a list of artists he’s worked with (not including the role he played in popularizing hip-hop as a mainstream genre in the 80s as one half of Def Jam Records): Adele (21), Justin Timberlake (FutureSex/LoveSounds), Red Hot Chili Peppers (pretty much every album), Kanye West (Yeezus and Life of Pablo), and Lady Gaga (Art Pop). Quite frankly, there aren’t many producers who have been around as long as Rubin that still has as much clout in the industry as he does. That is to say, a band as iconic (and seeking a comeback) as The Strokes does not just “meet” with Rick Rubin to shoot the shit.
Truthfully, I was expecting a messy album. But at the end of the day, even when they’re messy, The Strokes are still tight as hell. Part of their appeal has always been their air of not being bothered, which has proven to either be wildly successful for them (Is This It? And Room on Fire) or...supremely lackluster (First Impressions of Earth). The two outliers in that dichotomy are perhaps Angles (2011) and Comedown Machine (2013). For what it’s worth, I thought Angles was an incredible album from top to bottom, while Comedown Machine had its moments but was overall skippable. Apparently that is a controversial opinion because very few people I have discussed this with agree with me, but I’m sticking to it!
How fitting it is that amidst a global pandemic that has changed daily life as we know it, we have an album titled The New Abnormal? Granted, the band could have never guessed it would be released during such strange times, but here we are. Although, it isn’t the first time the band has released an aptly titled LP: their debut Is This It? (2001) squeaked in as one of the last Major Label, old-school music industry records before the likes of Napster and other forms of illegal downloading of music would change the industry as we know it. Alas, it’s been seven years since we last heard from The Strokes, and the question on the mind of fans is whether or not The New Abnormal will have been worth the wait.
What we get out of the album is a lot of what we have always loved about The Strokes: catchy guitar riffs, high-fret bass lines that are practically melodies in and of themselves, flawless drum beats, and that je ne sais quoi quality of Julian Casablancas’ vocals that remains no matter which effects get placed on it. Checkmarks across the board - this is 100% a Strokes album. As a producer, Rick Rubin has a history of getting bands back to their core sound, so perhaps that’s where we can hear his influence the most. We can also hear it in some of the in-between moments: the screeching guitar about two minutes into “Eternal Summer,” perhaps the bleeding out of synth and vocal pedals toward the end of “At the Door,” whatever that guitar effect is just past the minute mark on “Why Are Sunday’s So Depressing?" and the electronic drums off the top of the last track. While everything feels authentically The Strokes, there is still an undeniable kiss of something else in there.
As a whole, The New Abnormal is a great collection of songs. Each one fits nicely beside the next, telling a story in parts. Every song is super tight, despite all being fairly long. Sure, there’s no notable radio hit à la “Last Nite”, but we’re certainly not missing anything; so far as The Strokes go, it all seems to be there. So what is this album about? It’s about what was and what could have been, and also where they’re headed. It’s about their collective ‘unsticking’. It would seem that after having “taken the 2010s off” as Julian Casablancas put it, the band is ready to start again. Considering each member of the band is now either fourty or pushing it, it would make sense that we would get an album that is reflective, focussed, and dare I say emotional.
When they started on this great big adventure, they were all barely twenty years old - a lot has certainly changed. Not only for them all personally and as individuals, but in the industry and, indeed, the world in which they exist. As a group that, at the turn of the millennium, was considered the Last Great Rock Band, I am not entirely sure they have been able to hold up to that title over the years. So, with a new album in our midst at a time that is allowing for our own introspection, it begs the question: were The Strokes the Last Great Rock Band? Does the myth prevail, nearly twenty years later? perhaps The New Abnormal won’t offer a definitive answer all on its own...but if it’s not The Strokes, then who is it?