After spearheading the millennial guitar-band boom, The Strokes’ popularity has endured long after the indie bubble burst. Their unique, frenetic garage-rock sound made them the most hyped band of 2001, when the young quintet from New York signed a mammoth 5 album deal with industry giants RCA. Comedown Machine marks the end of that commitment and a turning point for a band who’ve been dogged by rumours of infighting and growing apathy for the past decade.
Tired of rehashing their first two albums (brilliant and genre-defining though they were), Casablancas & Co’s desire to move on has manifested in a fascination with 80s new-wave that permeates much of the record. Album opener ‘Tap Out’ begins with a few seconds of screeching guitar before the beat kicks in and the band launch into a Blondie-esque disco track. Despite hitting notes higher than Debbie Harry, the vocals are still laid-back and drawling, the staccato guitar parts interlock wonderfully and the rhythm section is propulsive but keeps a low profile. It has all the main elements of The Strokes sound, but in a completely different shape.
The most successful tracks are those which lean towards but aren’t completely engulfed by the new influences. Sharp-edged and funky, ‘Welcome To Japan’ sees Casablancas ditch the falsetto to sing in that too-cool, equal parts passion and nonchalance way only he can. Humorous and reflective, he muses on that infamous record deal, ‘I didn’t want to notice/Didn’t know the gun was loaded/Didn’t really know this/What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?’.
Almost title track ’80s Comedown Machine’ is amongst the most interesting things the band have ever done. A relatively mellow affair, the piece is built around a simple but uplifting string part which envelopes the delicate vocals, whilst haunting harmonies glide over the top. Only closing track ‘Call It Fate, Call It Karma’ manages to intrigue more, with a strange ghostly fusion of lounge-jazz and bossa nova which comes out of nowhere.
The eclecticism of the album, whilst a strength in many respects, makes for a disjointed listen – especially when a couple of efforts are made to satiate any die-hard Is This It? fans with some trad Strokes; lead single ‘All The Time’ is amongst these, pleasing enough at first listen but ultimately flat and easily forgettable.
It’s hard to predict what will happen to the fractious five-piece now they aren’t tied together with a record deal, but the experimentation shown on this album asserts that more creative freedom can only be a good thing. Imperfect but ambitious and multifaceted, Comedown Machine is by far the most interesting thing The Strokes have done in years.By Karl Bos