Comedown Machine, the Strokes’ last full-length release in their contract with RCA, marks the end of an era for a band best known for reigniting indie rock in the early 2000s. And yet it comes quietly, without any tour announcement and murmurs from the press instead of the usual fanfare. It’s the polar opposite of the circus of hype that rolled into town a little over a decade ago, when their RCA debut arrived to squeals of anticipation. The hubbub was justified: Is This It painted a picture of the hectic, haughty world of urban life in transition, a grimy Polaroid of New York City—post-Y2K, pre-9/11. The Strokes were a burst of nostalgic refreshment in a time when pop dominated the airwaves and the sound of electric guitars seemed exotic. And so, we lapped up the nostalgia with glee, and after Room On Fire allayed any fears of a sophomore slump two years later, the Strokes became America’s premier rock band, a group synonymous with the simple brilliance of garage rock.
Of course, inevitably, the five-track recordings got old, and Julian Casablancas and company got restless. The next few albums weren’t so hot: The overblown production of 2006’s First Impressions Of Earth couldn’t mask its innate boredom; 2011′s synth-pop experiment, Angles, was basically a bland extension of Casablancas’s new-wavy solo album; that his vocal takes were recorded remotely from the band’s speaks to how far they had strayed from the group dynamics of their early sound. Comedown Machine solves both of these problems: Its lean, 37-minute running time keeps things catchy and concise, and the ’80s instrumentation feels, for the most part, like a natural extension. It takes a few listens to get used to the gaudy neon finish adorning the majority of Comedown Machine’s 11 tracks, and purists may very well balk at it. And while this Machine might not work perfectly the entire time, it’s easily the band’s best effort in over a decade, a seamless set of strong rock songs that strikes a compromise between the straightforward rock of old and the newer pop flourishes.
Consider “One Way Trigger,” the album’s lead single. It may brutally rip off the signature cheese-ball synth riff from A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” but it’s also got the subtle key changes and tightly wound solos that were all over Is This It. The track that follows it, the funky “Welcome To Japan,” is similarly difficult to swallow initially, thanks to its Bee Gees-inspired cheekiness and mumbled refrain. But it’s every bit as cynical as “What Ever Happened?” or “Barely Legal.” “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?” Casablancas wonders grumpily, over anxious, tip-toeing guitars, and you can’t help but find amusement in the city-boy bitterness.
Instant gratification comes early and often. From the staccato, Duran Duran-inspired burbles filling opener “Tap Out,” to the anxious, Room On Fire-era churn of “All The Time,” from “50/50”’s fuzzy punk to “Happy Ending”’s sugary grooves, the Strokes saturate Comedown Machine with compelling hooks, with little in the way of filler (save the drab dream pop of “80′s Comedown Machine” and “Partners In Crime,” a glammy falsetto-fest that sounds like an Angles b-side). The transitions are also vastly improved: Carefully inserted codas and meticulously placed periods of silence give the album room to breathe and provide insurance against the clumsy clunkers of albums past. There’s a nice ebb and flow to Comedown Machine, a line of energy that can be traced from the unrestrained energy of “Tap Out” to the crackling phonograph finale, “Call It Fate Call It Karma.”
That line has it blips, of course. Try as he might to step up, Casablancas lacks the vocal stamina to match the fervent pace set by his bandmates. When there was nothing but guitars, bass and drums to compete with, his flat bass croon had the upper hand, but the current soundscape—synth-y, hyperactive, fluorescent—pushes it into the margins. Sometimes, on “80’s Comedown Machine” and “Partners In Crime,” it’s downright drowned out. Compared to the muscle and might of Dan Auerbach, vocalist for the Black Keys (America’s other premier rock band), Casablancas—on this album, anyway—sounds pretty paltry. Then there’s the question of influences. The Strokes are wise to tinker with the templates of the Cars and Thin Lizzy, but their decision to channel Tom Waits in the closer is an overreach, largely due to a similar problem of unequal vocal abilities, but also on account of the simple fact that the Strokes have neither the sinister nor the soulful in their musical DNA.
One of the key songs on Is This It was “Take It Or Leave It,” a punchy track that was an earworm and a treatise of musical purpose all wrapped up into one. After 12 years, five albums and more than a few looming breakups, that philosophy still holds true. The Strokes aren’t out to make friends with critics or to keep rolling out spanking-new versions of the chrome wheel they reinvented over a decade ago. In this case, they’re not even out to concoct any major radio smashes. There might not even be a tour. Instead, they’ve tossed a simple, solid album in our lap, thrown up the deuce and strolled out the door, take it or leave it. I’ll take it.