After a five-year hiatus, the New York band are finally ready to release their new album, Angles. Fortunately, the faithful will be richly rewarded.
The Strokes: sharp as ever
It might be hard to imagine now, but there was once a time when The Strokes were on top of the world. In August 2002, the New York band headlined the Reading Festival: though hugely popular, they retained their cachet, and though debuting new material their set was as received as well as one packed with their best-known hits. One might have been on the point of saying that The Strokes were having their cake and eating it when someone appeared on stage with an actual cake. It was Julian Casablancas's birthday, though it need not have been - back then every day was worthy of celebration.
So potent was the band's popularity that it is now almost impossible not to view everything that has happened since - a second album that couldn't hope to own the moment as their first had; a third that fatally meddled with the band's sound; a five-year hiatus; the soon-to-be released fourth album, Angles - in the light of this moment of lightly worn triumph nearly a decade ago. The Strokes had arrived, much as Oasis had in 1993, as a rock'n'roll revelation offering succour to the faithful masses. But, from there, as Philip Larkin said of the Beatles, the only way to go was down.
For this reason, the fact that a fourth album even exists (albeit after some considerable delay) is both a surprise and a considerable achievement. I say this not only because it is good - the opening third, particularly so - but also because it is the product of circumstances hardly conducive to creativity: heightened expectations, new ways of working and differences of opinion within the ranks, many of which apparently remain unresolved.
This is all rather contrary to the manner in which The Strokes arrived in 2001. Then, they exhibited a dazzling conceptual unity, their sound approximating a dream ticket: that of a CBGBs resident act from 1974 playing It's Not Unusual by Tom Jones. Their instantly emulated appearance, meanwhile, placed them in a time-honoured lineage of artists who smoked cigarettes, wore skinny jeans and nonchalantly leant against walls in major cities. If the White Stripes seemed like an art project, The Strokes, unmistakably, were a band.
As it later transpired, this was only true in part. In one respect, The Strokes were just as advertised. Frequently pitched as "the last gang in town", the group's members exhibited considerable fraternity in their early years together. Perhaps they needed to. So successfully did they wear those leather jackets and insolently streetwise expressions that it sometimes seemed they couldn't leave their hotel rooms without some hostile individual trying to start a fight with them. (I once travelled to Liverpool to interview the band and watch them not play a gig - in frustration with this state of affairs, the drummer had punched a wall, fracturing a bone in his hand.) They travelled together in a van, liberally decorated with ashtrays, beer cans and pornographic images.
For all this apparent unity, Strokes compositions were very much the work of Casablancas, whose aesthetic judgements and deadpan observations gave the band their collective identity. Now, things have changed. Since 2006, the group's members have embraced personal projects: the guitarist Albert Hammond Jr has released two solo albums; bassist Nikolai Fraiture is part of the unimpressive new-wave outfit Nickel Eye; drummer Fabrizio Moretti plays with the Brazilian/American band Little Joy, meanwhile, the guitarist Nick Valensi has concentrated on raising his children. On Angles, they all have their say. The promotional schedule for Casablancas's own 2009 solo album, Phrazes For The Young, was such that he was never in the studio to record his parts at the same time as the rest of the band. This has not passed without comment from other members.
Not that any disharmony can be heard on Angles. Ironically, Casablancas remains the dominant voice, instantly recognisable, hipper than thou, but wittily so. "I been all over this town…" he imparts on the album's first single, Under Cover of Darkness, recreating the kind of scene one immediately associates with this band: an oversubscribed twentysomething party in pre-9/11 New York. "They been singing the same song for 10 years…" The implication, of course, is that it's one of his compositions that people are still singing.
In truth, however, in the time they have been away, the musical landscape has changed rather more than The Strokes might care to imagine. At their apex, they exerted huge influence, preparing the ground for others such as The Libertines (The British Strokes) Interpol (who predate them, but who can be seen as The Sadder Strokes) and Kings of Leon (The Southern Strokes). But over the last five years, the latter two bands have grown immeasurably, their music becoming stately, epic, stadium-ready.
And The Strokes? Well, as Angles is at pains to demonstrate, and as is probably for the best, they have remained much the same. Change for change's sake can be found on 2006's misjudged and less than loveable First Impressions of Earth. Here the band offer everything one would hope to find on a Strokes album. Baroque song structures for twin guitars, Casablancas's Lou Reed-style oratory, propulsive beats - all are present and correct. In terms of appearance, they now look quite odd. (Casablancas comes over more like a refugee from a 1985 hip-hop video than a Lower East Side door supervisor circa 1978.) But their music has been tweaked, not entirely made over.
Throughout, there's a feeling that The Strokes have kept faith with their initial inspirations and are now mining later parts of their catalogues. The opening Macchu Picchu finds Casablancas et al in familiar territory, but this time the street-level, night-time narrative and spiky guitars come with a topnote of reggae. In ethos, it is reminiscent of Blondie - another band that embraced a new decade (in this case the 1980s) by affecting a poppier sheen.
Two Kinds of Happiness reinforces the feeling of revisiting formative influences further into their discographies. While Barely Legal, from the band's 2001 debut Is This It, was heavily indebted to Tom Petty's American Girl, this track recalls Petty's 1989 hit I Won't Back Down. A firm assurance that the band remains true to its core values, however, comes with the aforementioned Under Cover of Darkness. Garage rock that conceals something a bit more complex, apparently tongue-tied but surprisingly articulate, it's The Strokes all over.
Throughout, misfiring ideas (You're So Right is an effort reminiscent of something from Radiohead's In Rainbows that never gets off the ground; Call Me Back's bare-bones style of lightweight guitar rock feels a little undeveloped) are redeemed and outweighed by much stronger material. Taken For A Fool begins like Michael Jackson's Beat It , then is slowly owned by Casablancas's deadpan tone. Gratisfaction, meanwhile, is a quirky take on Thin Lizzy's Boys Are Back In Town with a magnificent, proggy chorus and could well be the best track on Angles.
If any one message emerges on this album, it is that The Strokes are moving forward, gradually, like a TV crime drama that takes place in real time. If we imagine the band to have begun, stylistically speaking at least, in the mid-1970s, now, 10 years on, they are ready to claim the 1980s. As if to confirm this, Games sounds uncannily Human League-like.
All round though, the prevailing feeling is one of familiarity. The music is assured and mainly guitar-based, the songs knowing and arch. As with Is This It, it even turns out that the band worked with a big-name producer (this time Joe Chicarelli) in the early stages, then abandoned the collaboration and reworked the resulting songs into something scruffier and more their own. What is utterly unfamiliar, however, is the harshness of the environment into which this album will be released: in 2011 The Strokes spearhead no rock revolution, lead no fashion trends and have no natural momentum of their own.
In fact, after such a lengthy absence there's little outside the record itself to affect its fortunes. For a rock band, a hiatus is an unpredictable quantity: like asking your partner to remain faithful when beginning a long prison sentence. Angles unexpectedly and abundantly repays such loyalty.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide's rock critic. He lives in London.