One of rock’s last true tent-pole moments, the Strokes’ debut benefitted from both perfect timing and an unprecedented campaign of major-label hype-massaging. This push positioned the Strokes as the band of the moment, the only act with a finger on the pulse of New York’s post-millennial, pre-9/11 fears, most of these tied to growing discomfort with the changing face of the city—feelings that inspired a nostalgia-tinged longing for a pre-Giuliani, peak-gritty dystopia. Their proclaimed messianic status was divisive, as it should have been: Fronted by the son of an international business mogul and a former Miss Denmark, this is a gang of quasi-identical moppets that came off as a prep-school version of the Ramones. Yet they also had a marked talent for transforming those feelings of longing into sharp, slightly scruffy pop, a quality that’s left them as the last band standing from this mostly embarrassing era of garage-rock revivalism (remember the Mooney Suzuki?).
Though the Strokes have continued to exist for the last 12 years, they haven’t done so without some residual damage. If anything, they’re a living example of how hard it is to go from the musical apotheosis of a specific point in time to a functioning, developing musical unit. Each of their successive releases has therefore felt like a non-event, with the group fundamentally sterilized by their initial fame, unable to crawl out from their own shadow, even though each new album has involved cursory attempts to push into new territory.
The final piece of a five-album contract, Comedown Machine could very well be their last effort. It’s not a crowning achievement. If anything, it’s another stern reminder that high praise will most likely never be associated with the group again, partially because they’re too concerned with shadow-boxing their own legacy, tweaking the specifics that made them so satisfying in the first place, to ever succeed on any entirely new terms. But on an even deeper level, the truth is that even if the Strokes knocked off another great album, it likely wouldn’t register as such, since the group is too divorced from their initial context to make much of an impact anywhere; their scene is dead, the party is over, leaving them as ghosts, playing out the remainder of their contract in the music-industry equivalent of garbage time.
Even with all this baggage, though, Comedown Machine remains a pretty good album, possibly the least characteristic thing they’ve released to date. One feature that persists is the band’s omnipresent air of boredom, a quality that’s hard to fault them for, considering how big a part of their sound it’s always been; Julian Casablancas’s voice has always been be one of pop’s best conveyors of casual disinterest. Songs like “One Way Trigger” find that normally flat voice pushed into machine-assisted falsetto, an odd departure that matches the electronic noodling found here and elsewhere. At times, the band seems to be recording for their own amusement, unleashing spastic solos, dreamy arpeggio doodles, and strangely subdued tracks, like the pleasant but surprisingly modest “50 50.” This ho-hum refusal to engage in any sort of dynamism or crowd-pleasing energy is another familiar feature. At the beginning of their career, presented as brief moments amid otherwise drum-tight songs, it sounded like a cool screw-you to the establishment the band was pretending not to be a part of. Now it smacks of weariness and barely disguised melancholy.
Yet Comedown Machine has one prevailing good idea, implementing that melancholy into the fabric of the songs, which seems to be as much about exhaustion as anything. The morning after-invoking title and the clear statement of the album cover, with its wistful affection for analog media, indicates a definite focus on the concrete tangibles of a bygone era. This brings things back to the quartet’s source, as an of-the-moment act formed on cannibalized memories of an imaginary past, a perspective which grants Comedown Machine a nice sense of double nostalgia, both for the original garage era and a time when the group was still a relevant entity, feelings they refuse to fully gratify by pushing their music into ever stranger, more somnolent territory. This may be it for the Strokes, and if things don’t end here, the result for their lasting legacy will likely only be more confusing and muddled.