Well, if it weren’t abundantly clear by now that The Strokes are totally ambivalent towards their “saviors of rock” title, take one listen to their fifth and latest album, Comedown Machine—it all but spells it out. And what’s more, it appears they’re collectively throwing in the towel to boot. Between no announced tour dates, a media black out, and a fulfillment of their contractual obligations to RCA (did you see that album cover?), I’d say all signs point to “see you later”.
So, this is it? They’ve decided to ostensibly end it all with Comedown Machine? Every group has to call it quits sooner or later (except The Rolling Stones) but, come on, guys, you weren’t even trying. I’m not even talking aesthetics (but don’t worry, I will)—in terms of sheer songwriting and musicality, Comedown Machine is among the laziest, most disjointed, and uninteresting (not to mention utterly disappointing) albums I can recall. It’s hard to think of another band—a band formerly so unimpeachably, unassailably cool—that has fallen so far as The Strokes, and in little more than a decade.
The Strokes defined millennial chic upon Is This It’s arrival with the force and immediacy of an Olympian thunder-clap—Chuck Taylor’s, skinny jeans, graphic tees, shaggy bed-head—an Athenian appearance, fully-formed and armored, out of the God of Rock’s head. The music, like the band themselves, was frayed just enough around the edges, to insinuate a perpetual state of intoxication, eternally stumbling out of the garage or some model’s bed and ever onward to the after-party. Room On Fire rushed to replicate the success of the original (I still have electric memories of getting my hands on those rough drafts and live bootlegs leaked on Kazaa). It repackaged the raw appeal of their first in a neater, tidier package, reminiscent of how That Thing You Do’s The Wonders would wrap a set, smile, and sprint off stage. First Impressions of Earth was the most sprawling, albeit occasionally uninspiring, 52 minutes ever released by a garage rock band. The Strokes’s music became muscular, polished while remaining tough and yet also more emotional; it was a welcome listen during a time of personal relationship hell. And Angles, for its numerous, tasteless offenses, was still the reunion album. After all, who can resist “getting the gang back together”? And it’s not as though the songs were poorly written, some of them were great (“Machu Picchu”, “Under Cover of Darkness”), it simply found The Strokes going down a road I wasn’t particularly interested in following.
Comedown Machine, however, finally sees The Strokes (only just?) outlive their usefulness. If Angles was The Strokes’s Green Album, then Comedown Machine finds The Strokes in Weezer 3.0 territory—ill-conceived, schlocky, out of touch, and uncool; a band making music no one particularly cares for in a fashion not all that dissimilar to the reanimated shenanigans in Weekend At Bernie’s. “All The Time”, Comedown Machine’s second lead-off single, is the most like anything from Is This It or Room On Fire but it’s also manufactured, uninspired, bland. As Comedown Machine’s only other single, that other being the A-ha aping “One Way Trigger”, this is the most they can muster? Even the most worthwhile tracks, like the lively “Happy Ending” or the decent kick-off tune, “Tap Out”, are merely second-rate Angles leftovers.
Nearly all the rest are so unmemorable I can’t describe them unless I’m listening to the track as I write. “Welcome to Japan” sees the band try on disco, Casablancas’s continued bizarre obsession with three decade old synth technology rears its ugly head yet again on “80’s Comedown Machine”, the most can be said for “Slow Animals” is it doesn’t rock the boat, and “Chances” sounds like an 80’s prom night reject. None are particularly better or worse than the other; in fact, they might all be rather catchy were they not so flabby in the middle. Hands down, the worst track is “Partners In Crime”, containing by far the laziest guitar work from Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. on the entirety of Comedown Machine and ear-grating harmonizing between Casablancas and his goddammned synths. Never have I actively hated a Strokes song until this moment, so, thanks for that. “50/50” and “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” let the band stretch into break-neck punk and Tom Waits-styled 20’s jazz respectively but they’re both so out of place they’d still be head-scratchers even if they were the best tracks here, which they most definitely are not.
The whole affair rings hollow and tossed off. It’s frustrating because the whole world knows how truly great The Strokes can be. We’ve seen it before. Is This It was structured, edited, rehearsed, refined to perfection like a flawless gem. Look no further for evidence than “Barely Legal”—the difference between the miscalculated and overly-long version on The Modern Age EP and what they did with it on Is This It is astounding. If The Strokes had put even a modicum of the effort into Comedown Machine as they did into that one track, we’d have a final album from a legendary band that would be worthy of remembering, or at least one capable of going toe-to-toe with Angles.