Different Strokes: "Comedown Machine" Short Circuits
Missing the Band
I came into my Strokes phase a little later than most fans. When their first single, "Last Nite," was released in 2001, it didn't really resonate with me the way that it did a lot of other post-adolescent teens. Not because it wasn't a catchy nugget of pop perfection, but because I wouldn't even listen to it. My nose was positioned at roughly a 90 degree angle toward the sky when it came to the whole garage-punk revival scene. I was hopelessly entrenched in the suffocating ether of grunge purgatory, not-so-patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album not to suck, and I foolishly lumped The Strokes in with bands that had likewise stupid sounding names like The Hives and The Vines. In short, I missed the band that I didn't even know I'd been waiting for.
It wasn't until I began uncovering their catalogue via Pandora radio that I finally realized how perfectly their chunky guitar riffs, thoughtful bass lines, and to-the-point percussion patterns fit my personal musical milieu. I was similarly entranced by lead singer Julian Casablancas' ridiculously lackadaisical crooning about his equally ridiculously apathetic musings on the letdown that is our mid-20s. After I'd actually listened to their debut album, Is This It, his hipster posturing never again rang false to me. Unfortunately, The Strokes that I grew to love had ceased to exist by the time I became so infatuated, abandoning their '70s CBGB-esque roots for the zanier pastures of '80s retro nostalgia on their still solid 2011 effort Angles.
The Strokes didn't used to care about anything other than looking cool and sounding even cooler (I always thought of it as "bored chic"), but that was enough. Everyone knew that the band didn't care where they stood, and that made us all the more comfortable. There was the shared sense that each album would sound almost exactly like we wanted and expected it to. That sparse NYC sound was not only consistent, it was permanent and uncompromising. With the release of their latest album, Comedown Machine, however, it seems as though they've actually become enamored with something far less eternal than their seminal sound: someone else's.
It's obvious that The Strokes (or, given the similarity of their latest release to his solo work, maybe just Julian Casablancas) have become obsessed with modeling their brand of guitar infused pop rock after sonic interpretations of '80s new wave bands like Duran Duran and Pet Shop Boys, but they don't stop there. Two of the first three tracks on Comedown Machine are fatally obvious 2013 iterations of songs originally canonized by '80's icons. The first of these, the album's opening track, "Tap Out" has an upbeat bass line throughout the verse that compares favorably with Madonna's "Holiday," while the third track, "All the Time" has a synth hook that so blatantly rips of the intro to A-ha's "Take on Me" that I wasn't sure whether to be insulted or start tapping my foot: So I actually ended up doing both.
These little sentimental homages (and I'm really trying to use the word kindly) permeate the entirety of the album, which clocks in at a very Strokish 39:55. Although, that's not to say that they don't occasionally work in the band's favor. The [near] title-track, "80's Comedown Machine," floats along with a pleasantly muted guitar lick and fuzzy bass line, only to be interrupted by an oddly inserted carrousel tune that somehow serves to complicate and enhance the seductive undertones of the song simultaneously. "Slow Animals" sounds like an Angles afterthought whose overdubbed vocal melodies on the latter half of the verses mimic Billie Joel's, "We Didn't Start the Fire," but it's an excellent imitation, which I suppose would be a good way to describe the entire album. It would also seem to describe the new direction and heightened self-awareness of the band. There's nothing more dangerous for the essence of a band than the conscious attempt to reasurrect a time gone by.
Each band member sounds hopelessly lost, or at the very least, heavily disoriented, on the majority of the tracks that comprise Comedown Machine. It's like they're trying to work their way through a not-so-fun house of mirrors, further losing their reflections around every new corner. They're clearly in uncharted territory as they attempt to navigate the depths of Casablancas' failed vanity project, while their fearful leader tries to cloak himself in the exposed nooks and crannies of these 11 melodies to such an extent that it's difficult to discern if we're listening to a washed up karaoke version of Joey Ramone or a likewise washed up karaoke version of Frank Sinatra. The band wants a distinct sound, but their determined effort to achieve it drowns in the undertow of imitation and self-perception.
While there are definitely flashes of The Strokes we all used to love on Comedown Machine, ultimately the album's mission is far too self-conscious to be considered great, or even good for that matter, at least when compared with the rest of their work. The result is a concerted effort to make themselves sound like something they aren't and were not ever meant to be. From start to finish, you can hear the band bemoaning their obligatory fifth album to RCA, which probably has a lot to do with the lack of their signature sound on the identity crisis that is Comedown Machine. Nobody likes having to live up to their responsibilities as they age, especially when the visage greeting you in the mirror is both utterly foreign and eerily familiar at the same time.