Sometimes you have to wonder if the worst thing that can happen to a band is that they receive immediate approval and adulation. The Strokes have spent the last five years getting over the success of ‘Is this it’, their every move examined in response to that much-lauded album. Some criticised the follow-up ‘Room on fire’ for being too much like ‘Is this it’, and others said it was too different – they couldn’t win.
Their third album was always going to suffer from the same anticipation and analysis, and it was always going to disappoint. In the end, they have tried appease both camps – those looking for something new, and those pining for ‘Is this it 2’. It’s a move that doesn’t always pay off.
New producer, David Kahne (The Bangles, Cher, Paul McCartney) has given the sound a layer of gloss and muscle while, at the same time, retaining much of the band’s trademark ‘transistor-friendly’ low-fi fuzziness. Julian Casablancas’ strained and sloppy vocals even seem occasionally out of place amid the clean guitar sounds and ultra-tight rhythms.
The opening sequence of songs is as good as anything they’ve done. ‘You only live once’ could be The Cars circa 1978, with its chugging guitars and mechano-beat. First single ‘Juicebox’ is propelled by a Peter Gunn bass riff and slashing guitars, while ‘Razorblade’ and ‘On the other side’ channel an array of 70s influences including ’new-wave reggae’ and Barry Manilow’. At six songs in, ‘Ask me anything’ finds Casablancas singing with only a mellotron for accompaniment. It’s a welcome change of pace.
Unfortunately, the quality isn’t maintained throughout the second half of the album, and songs like ‘Vision of division’, ‘Killing lies’ and ‘Evening sun’ seem laboured and uninteresting. And the experiments here fall flat – the odd ‘Zorba the Greek’ guitar soloing in ‘Vision’ and tempo shifts in ’15 minutes’.
It’s also about this time that you realize this is a very long Strokes album. It is, in fact, longer than ‘Is this it’and ‘Room on fire’ combined. One wonders what another 30-minute album might have sounded like. There are at least four or five songs that would not have been missed.
And so, the verdict? The experiments are admirable, if not always successful. The best songs are very good indeed. But, as a whole, this is probably not a great album – too long, too inconsistent, too many weak songs. And one comes away with the impression of a band unable or afraid to cut loose, always conscious of the critical eye, the need for approval. This self-consciousness is evident in the lyrics too. ‘I’ve got nothing to say’ moans Casablancas in ‘Ask me anything’ – an apparent riposte to criticism that he, indeed, has nothing to say. (Although later on, in ‘Red light’, he also says ‘Seven billion people got nothing to say.’)
Maybe they should try something completely different next time? An album of instrumentals? Synth-pop? A dance album? Rid themselves of the ‘Is this it’ curse for good.