What do the Strokes think they still have to give, a decade down the road? Why are they still here? It’s not a facetious question; I’m curious.
A broader question: what can we expect, or what do we ask, from bands that stick together for so long? There’s no more than a handful that have done so without turning into faintly embarrassing pasticheurs of their early selves. REM managed it, barely; the Beasties, boisterously; Radiohead, onerously; and Bankrupt will tell how Phoenix are doing. There’s no longevity formula, but these are partnerships that grew and evolved and inspired affection as well as infatuation.
The Strokes, too arch and unengaged, too perfectly formed to be vulnerable enough to be loveable, were different. You didn’t expect emotional engagement from them; they never did stray accidentally into the transcendent. An insistent bass, a jagged twisting guitar line, a scowling vocal and enough energy to power the Aviva for a year and a half; that’s all you’d ask. Ultimately, with the Strokes, it always came down to something as intangible, as unmeasurable, as irresistibility.
After the debacle of Angles – an album as jaded as a sloth on benzodiazepines after a week of nights – Comedown Machine kicks off almost irresistibly. In ‘Tap Out’, a Gallic 80s guitar line underpins a double-tracked octaves-apart vocal, and head-nodding is non-negotiable.
‘All The Time’ bursts in urgently, like an outtake from Is This It, let down only by tediously banal lyrics: “You never ask why / You never ask why / You’re living a lie / Baby you’re flying too high”. It’s not like anyone ever asked “Julian Casablancas, how shall we live?” but this level of lazy inconsequentiality is a little much. ‘Welcome to Japan’ has its moments but is unbecomingly pleased with itself, repeating a couplet Casablancas clearly expects to be quotable: “I didn’t really know this / What kind of asshole drives a Lotus”. The line is fine: but shouldn’t every couplet be quotable, when you’re playing at this level?
The track that emerged back in January, ‘One Way Trigger’, epitomises another problem at the heart of Comedown Machine. With a garish, borderline ugly synth riff and stretched falsetto, ‘One Way Trigger’ sounds so forced as to make for uncomfortable listening; I have caught myself wincing when it comes on. It’s the sound a band makes when it doesn’t know what to sound like any more.
The problem, put simply, is that the Strokes in 2013 don’t have a coherent enough personality to keep it going. They either sound like their old selves, but less so (‘All the Time’, ’50/50′, ‘Happy Endings’) or they try too hard to be different, with awkward, contrived results (‘Partners in Crime’, ‘One Way Trigger’, ‘Call It Fate, Call It Karma’).
Magnifying the identity problem, Comedown Machine‘s most successful songs are those on which the Strokes sound literally like a different band. ‘Tap Out’ and ‘Slow Animals’ are patently purloined from Phoenix, tapping into Laurent Brancowitz’s percussive melodic nous, while ’80s Comedown Machine’, which channels Grandaddy, is moving in its rank resignation. ‘Chances’, which I can’t hear without thinking of the Killers, doesn’t work quite as well.
In Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Oldham speaks about bands that stay together a long time in a way that struck me as wise. He said “If you’re always playing music with somebody and spending all your time with them, then they’re not going to surprise you, they’re not going to teach you anything, and you’re not going to teach them anything”. I read that the week I got this album, and I thought: ten years in, these guys need a really, really good reason to stay together. Playing Comedown Machine, I thought: this patchy, wan set of songs is not that reason. ‘Welcome to Japan’ is all very well, but it could be Sayonara to the Strokes.