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Stop worrying, dear young hopefuls, they’ve done it. Breathe your sighs of relief, for the boys have not yet let us down. Fuck a sophomore slump—Room on Fire is a masterpiece.
It’s been three summers now since the Modern Age EP came out, three summers since the Strokes first stumbled over and imparted their gift on their audience, those first twelve songs buzzing in our heads, giving us hope and promising great new things, whispering about secrets, warming our blood somehow and giving us the happyshakes in our elbows and the trembles in our knees. Yes we listened and yes we waited and yes we reluctantly understood that the recordings had to do us for the time being because hell, the Strokes couldn’t very well play in our town every night now could they? Of course not, for there was a world to conquer, lives to save in the heart of America! A revolution of style to incite, and for the sake of the follow-up, a transcendent, otherworldly cool to preserve, to topple, and to reinvent.
Without a doubt, the biggest criticism that Room on Fire will suffer from the uninformed rock press is that it sounds a lot like Is This It, the band’s trailblazing debut. Rolling Stone has already published a four star review of the album, in which editor David Fricke simplistically claims that the record was made with an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality. That interpretation must be dispelled immediately, because the Strokes have changed profoundly, even though the shift has been subtle. They didn’t need to contrive a dramatic change to stay relevant; they do just fine moving at their own pace.
That said, Room on Fire is fundamentally different from Is This It. Not only has the texture of the songs been modified through the use of synthy guitar lines and down tempo beats, but more importantly, the entire attitude of the album has shifted away from the shy “can’t you see I’m trying” desperation of the debut to a new, unspeakably enviable position of power, greed, and control that Julian can now genuinely exude without feeling presumptuous. “Please don’t slow me down if I’m moving too fast,” he sings on “Reptilia,” and inexplicably he has more longing in his voice this time than he’s ever been able to muster before. It’s really a mystery how he manages to summon this longing when one can tell just by looking at him—just by listening to his songs—that he has absolutely every prospect, every girl, every fun Friday night before him. Yet he pulls it off, and as his voice cracks under its own roughness in “Under Control,” the Strokes’ first ballad and the best song on Room on Fire, it’s obvious that he’s hungry for much more. If only we all had such problems!
Lyrically, Julian has only become more vague since Is This It, but this ambiguity makes the words all the more effective. Concrete storytelling is sparse, but the self-destructive, reluctant confidence radiating from the rest of the lyrics makes for a brilliant contrast in songs like “12:51,” which ends with a warm, softened Julian murmuring “Oh really your folks are away now? / Alright I’m coming / I’ll be right there,” with beer on his breath and a smile on his face.
Judging by their recent live set at the Paul Tsognas Arena, there’s probably a smile on his face all the time now. Thrilled and confused through the entire show, Julian muttered to us drunkenly, acting like our best friend and our older brother at the same time. At the end of the set, during the triumphant “Take It or Leave It,” he dove into the audience, and as the crowd pawed frantically at him and made their push towards the front, about a hundred people fell over and a nervous pandemonium ensued. The security guards scrambled to help the fallen, while Julian took the opportunity to jump back down to us, singing the last verse of the song with his face inches away from a distracted bouncer’s ear. As the lights darted from Julian to the chaos in front of him, the mischevious nogoodnik grinned, and raised his index finger to his lips, as if to say “Don’t tell him I’m here!”
He’s happy, then, because he knows that his band is succeeding. That the unbearable fear of failure and stagnation that drove the writing and recording of Room on Fire has paid off. That the Strokes just might be the best band of our time. That, amazingly, they’re only getting better.
With the completion of Room on Fire, the Strokes have shown themselves to be a versatile, perceptive band capable of nailing the human condition in all its complicated, yearning glory. Now that the album is out, here’s to three more summers of the Strokes, and to a lifetime of ache, anticipation, and the struggle in each of us to one day create something as fantastic as Room on Fire.
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