The Strokes aren't the same band you fell in love with 10 years ago. Their fourth album, Angles, is incredibly restless, busy, and precise in a way the sets it miles away stylistically from their watershed Is This It. The band's trademark dumb swagger has morphed into a kind of acute professionalism here, and that digitally processed production that producer Gordon Raphael reportedly worked against on the band's debut EP, The Modern Age, has now taken center stage. Opener "Machu Picchu" has a bouncy sheen to it reminiscent of Combat Rock-era Clash, still lackadaisically catchy in the best Strokes way, but the power of the studio is now more pronounced than ever before.
This is the Strokes accented in neon and fluorescent lights, tight and mechanical in a way that calculates their sound with almost robotic meticulousness. Sometimes this isn't entirely to the group's disservice: Lead single "Under the Cover of Darkness" stands among the Strokes' best work, showing them as a band that knows exactly what their strengths are and playing to them directly. The songwriting is impeccable, the hooks are undeniable, and the musical chops are developed to impressive maturity in contrast to the amateur sweat of "The Modern Age."
Yet something about the Strokes is lost in all of these regimented designs. The clear loss of a group dynamic is displayed in the album's nagging absence of cohesion, with each track individually wrapped in restrictive cellophane and never coolly breezing into the next. Most great albums have an environment in them: The Queen Is Dead tours through dark alleys of London, and Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece is lost and alone in endless green fields. But Angles is nowhere, trapped in an empty space of limbo.
"Taken for a Fool" is a standout, showcasing the same single-worthy hooks as "Darkness," but its transition into "Games" is almost glaringly abrupt and sharp, and this is only one of many such harsh shifts. The Thom Yorke-isms of "Call Me Back" is an incongruent setup for the finger-snapping bubblegum of "Gratisfaction," and there's no momentum coming off of the lackluster "Metabolism" to give closer "Life Is Simple in the Moonlight" the impact it deserves.
Of course, given the LP's title, the band is clearly aware of these jarring turns, but it comes off more like an excuse for a crippled creative process than a fleshed-out artistic concept. Angles is a document of the Strokes operating more as a task force than a real band; even though the album's allegedly fractured recording sessions resulted in the first Strokes LP to feature writing credits from every member of the band, this is more of a show of individuals tinkering with each track rather than any true cooperative effort. There are times when it's a pleasure to hear them work, most of the time the album sounds like a divorce settlement being pieced together one painstaking line at a time.