On the week of March, 20th the world began to shut down due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. Around two weeks later, our favorite indie-rock heroes from New York City, The Strokes, released their first full-length album in seven years, aptly titled The New Abnormal.
Formed in New York City, in 1998, the lineup of singer Julian Casablancas, guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr, as well as bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti has remained steady for 22 years. While the band has seemingly teetered on the brink of implosion on multiple occasions, they have always found a way to remain intact through the use of extended hiatuses.
Considered one of, if not the, most prominent example of the late 90s and early 2000s Garage Rock and Post Punk revival, The Strokes have always been ahead of the curve, and so, in a time when we are trying to flatten the curve (associated with COVID-19), it makes perfect sense that one of New York Cities favorite sons would come storming triumphantly back smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic.
The Strokes began writing music and lyrics for The New Abnormal as far back as 2016, and the bulk of the album was formally recorded in California, at Shangri-la studios in 2019, with producer Rick Rubin at the controls. When The Strokes began recording The New Abnormal a year ago, they couldn’t have known about the pandemic that lay ahead. None of us did. So, how did an album recorded a year ago, in California come to soundtrack the lonely days of NYC? A city that is not only the band’s hometown but one that also happens to be the literal world epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak.
In truth, the album’s title is one born from struggle and devastation. While the band was recording at Shangri-La studios, the state of California was in the midst of the 2019 wildfires outbreak, which saw dry forested areas and residential areas across the state continuously burning 24/7 for weeks at a time. Around this time, California governor Jerry Brown labeled the events “the new abnormal,” and thus The Stroke’s new album title was born. Regardless of its origin, The New Abnormal was released in the spring of 2020, and thus can now be seen as a fitting description of public life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Singer Julian Casablancas has also noted during the pandemic that the title, “Feels so prescient because of the parallel between something like coronavirus.”
During my first listen of The New Abnormal, I felt immediate nostalgia wash over me. I was not on the initial hype train for The Strokes in 2001 when Is This It dropped. No, my introduction to the band came during my senior year in high school, when First Impressions of Earth dropped in 2005. I know I am in an extremely small minority when I say this, but I feel First Impressions of Earth is the band’s greatest album. The raw, bleeding heart energy that the band exudes with each song is something that has always brought me great joy. Do you know the feeling of having a juicy burger when you’re starving? Or a cold bottle of frosted Heineken on a hot summer day? Listening to this album is the same for me. It’s just always good. Really good.
The New Abnormal is full of typical Strokes songs, ones that aim to keep the listener at arms-length, and that’s with intent. Julian Casablancas does not prefer to make himself fully known, and thus leaves the lyrics to his songs open to interpretation. I’ve always found this particularly endearing, as the listener can draw his own conclusions, and thus each individual song can take on a special meaning from person to person. With songs such as “The Adults Are Talking,” “Bad Decisions” and “Not the Same Anymore,” one cannot help but draw conclusions and make connections. So many of us are feeling the fatigue associated with quarantine. We wake up each day as if things are normal, but as the fog lifts and our brains begin to function again, we remember that things are anything but normal. Some of us are luckier than others, while others are forced to try and reconcile the actions of others. The actions of our “leaders” who, for better or worse, have landed us here (Bad Decisions). Each night, some of us take to local news outlets for updates, hopeful for new and meaningful information that may show us a light at the end of the tunnel. Most days, we see the faceless talking heads, regurgitating the same lifeless dribble (The Adults Are Talking). In the end, we face the fact that while things are (Not the Same Anymore), we can still glean something good from all of this, while it may not be all good, or normal, maybe it’s not all bad either (The New Abnormal).
All dark and gloominess aside, there is positive and even inspirational meaning to be drawn from the album. Tracks such as “At the Door” speak of a narrator dealing with a seemingly negative and unenviable situation, but at the same time he is so close to escape. He sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Another track called “Selfless” is one of true inspiration, which finds the narrator speaking of his relationship with his partner to be the highlight of his life. His life is full of challenges, but he is his best version of himself while he is with his beloved partner. Lastly, “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” finds the narrator steeped in heavily metaphorical thought, in which he is reminiscing about the past, but not in a negative context. The lyrics speak of a person analyzing the progress of his life, taking a sort of mental inventory, particularly from a social perspective. The reader seems to feel that he has not only caught up to but passed a never-ending cycle he found himself in. He’s better for it now. During these difficult times, it’s important that we seek balance in life, and while that is hard, it can be done. I believe that The New Abnormal has done a fantastic job of balancing the bleak with the triumphant, which is a perfect harbinger of the times we find ourselves in.
I’ve listened to and loved each and every Strokes album. All of them are fantastic in their own ways. That being said, for me, The New Abnormal is The Stroke’s best album since First Impressions of Earth. Yes, Angles was awesome. True, Comedown Machine was steeped in that brand of cool that only The Strokes can deliver, but The New Abnormal is not only a return to form; it’s everything the band has come to be known for, and suddenly, after all these years, they’ve added something more. Even as the members of the band approach or eclipse the age of 40, their reckless, youthful energy still permeates the music, but now, there is an almost soothsaying wiseness to these songs. The Strokes will never again be the kids who burst onto the scene with Is This It and Room on Fire, and honestly – do we really want them to be? Where is the fun in redundancy?
What I’ve always loved about The Strokes is they continually speak to all generations. Their music is timeless, and yet singular to only them. They move forward, but they only do so on their terms, when they’re ready, and that is something that only they could get away with. The Strokes wait for nobody, but doesn’t it seem from a musical perspective, that we are always waiting on The Strokes? They call the shots. More so, we are accepting of this. When it comes to The Strokes, their brand of cool is strictly theirs, and could never be perpetrated by anyone other than them. In short, The New Abnormal isn’t just the album that Strokes fans wanted, or deserved: this is an album wrought with a longing for the good old days, and thus, The Strokes have shrewdly delivered the album that all of us needed in these strange times. When the Strokes show up – we know it. When they hit – they hit hard. And when they do what they do– no one does it better. This is an album that for better or worse, will define a moment in time.
I believe it is for the better. When The Strokes are around, it’s always better.
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