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Amid ‘The New Abnormal,’ The Strokes Take a Cue From Brighter Times

5 Stars

Album art for "The New Abnormal."
Album art for "The New Abnormal." By Courtesy of the Strokes/RCA/Cult
By Sofia Andrade, Crimson Staff Writer

After a seven year break, American rock band the Strokes released their sixth studio album, “The New Abnormal,” on Apr. 10. The album, expertly produced by the legendary Rick Rubin, is a glittering blend of ’80s pop and The Strokes’ own characteristic edge — most notable in frontman Julian Casablancas’s grunge-style vocals. The album spends most of its time grappling with the ruins of a romantic relationship, as Casablancas sings about everything from painful regrets and self-blame — in songs like “At the Door” and “Not the Same Anymore” — to rose-colored nostalgia for lost love on “Why Are Sundays So Depressing.” Still, The Strokes retain their classic political edge on songs like “The Adults Are Talking” and “Eternal Summer.” Every track is led by the keyboards, synths, and vibrant guitars of ’80s synth-pop, giving the album an optimistic sheen that plays against its somewhat nihilistic subject matter, whether that be lamenting a failed relationship or the overall state of the world.

The opener, “The Adults Are Talking,” perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the 45-minute album. In it, Casablancas criticizes corporations and the “stockholders” of the world over an infectious melody, complete with snare hits and synthesizers that could have come directly from a Duran Duran single. “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” too, is fueled by these typical tropes of dance music, as Casablancas sings, “And the '80s bands? Oh, where did they go?” Despite the relentlessly-upbeat tempo and crystalline production, Casablancas’s lyrics reflect an inner turmoil over his personal relationships and their setbacks. “Is it just them? Or maybe all me? / Why my new friends don't seem to want me,” he sings cheerily on “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus.”

Though the whole album is clearly a product of ’80s nostalgia, some songs sound especially familiar — most notably “Bad Decisions.” The fourth track on the album, “Bad Decisions” is proof of what happens if you marry two ‘80s classics: Modern English’s “Melt WIth You” and Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself.” The chord progression sounds exactly like the former, while the latter manifests itself in the chorus, where Casablancas sings that he’s “makin’ bad decisions” over and over again, to the same exact melody as Idol, his voice laid back and lazy. In the song’s bridge, a guitar solo blazes with all the fanfare of glam rock, complete with the obligatory finger tapping and high sustain of the genre. Still, the song is one of the best on the album and endlessly fun, practically begging you to dance along.

With the current Covid-19 pandemic, we are all in many ways living a “new abnormal.” That wasn’t necessarily the only thing that The Strokes had in mind when they named their latest album, however. In an interview with the L.A. Times, Casablancas said that “‘the new abnormal’ was something Gov. Jerry Brown said during the Malibu fires in 2018, and there’s a parallel between global warming and the coronavirus. A similar kind of threat to your reality.” Nowhere is that meaning more salient than in “Eternal Summer,” a vibrant song characterized by a peppy beat, clean guitars, and Casablancas’s own shining falsetto. “Summer is coming, won't go away,” Casablancas sings. Amid the song’s summery musicality, his words seem harmless enough. That is, until he sings that “They got the remedy / But they won't let it happen,” claiming that those in power instead leave the issue of climate change — or perpetual summer — to be a “mystery to solve for somebody else.” He sings too, of the world being in the “eleventh hour,” or the last moment before the predicted climate catastrophe, bringing a somber reality to the otherwise optimistic tune.

The last two songs on “The New Abnormal,” “Not the Same Anymore” and “Ode to the Mets,'' cement the album’s status as a homerun for The Strokes and an instant classic. In “Not the Same Anymore,” Casablancas sings about how he “fucked up” his past relationships, and how “he can’t change, it’s too late.” His pleading vocals, set against the backdrop of a smooth, hypnotic guitar, make the song an aching testament to melancholy as it slowly drags on towards Casablancas’s realization that he is the one at fault for his romantic woes. “Ode to the Mets” brings the energy of the album back up, sealing it with one last ’80s dance track. The song starts slow, with ethereal synths and Casablancas’s brooding vocals making it seem as though the Strokes are letting you in on a secret. As it goes on, however, its synths and keyboards suck you in completely. “Pardon the silence that you're hearing,” Casablancas sings. “It's turnin' into a deafening, painful, shameful roar.” A deafening roar is somewhat of an overstatement, but the song never fails to deliver as it moves from the pained vocals of the chorus into a smooth outro, fun and swirling as it leads you to the end of the powerhouse album.

They may have fallen under the radar for a couple years, but with “The New Abnormal,” the Strokes remind fans that they’re still a force to be reckoned with. Dancey yet gritty around the edges, “The New Abnormal” serves as both a sign of the times and a nostalgic reflection on the rock giants of the past.

—Staff writer Sofia Andrade can be reached at sofia.andrade@thecrimson.com.

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