The Strokes have always had a lot to live up to, and Comedown Machine illustrates that the band may be all too aware of that fact. Initially hailed by some as saviours of modern alt-rock, their auspicious debut Is This It led to a youthful garage-rock-informed aesthetic becoming ubiquitous throughout the early noughties.
The band’s creative flow has had its fair share of interruptions, though, being disrupted by a number of solo projects and even a hiatus. Their output has fragmented incrementally along the way, leading to some interesting nuances in their sound: the dark shadows of 2006’s First Impressions of Earth and the sharp yet danceable grooves of 2011’s Angles. Now, however, it has gotten to the stage where The Strokes’ main dilemma is the way their more recent material creates both comforting experiences of warm nostalgia and unnerving moments of cold déjà vu. Comedown Machine is the group’s fifth album, but it is also their safest.
The nostalgia swells effortlessly on 50/50 and All The Time – songs that echo everything that has ever been overtly jubilant, harmonious and energetic about The Strokes. The former is driven by a garage-punk chorus and some perfectly spiky vocals from Julian Casablancas, and the latter by some beautifully warm guitar tones and a typically stubborn earworm hook.
The hints of déjà vu are a little more pungent. Some of the tracks on Comedown Machine were built off leftovers from the tumultuous Angles sessions, and Slow Animals could very well be one of them. It’s a relatively well-rounded pop song, yet, much like other tracks Chances and Happy Ending, ends up feeling like filler. Casablancas sings in a much higher register than usual, and it becomes rather unsettling when he goes too far beyond his abilities solely to satisfy his crush on ’80s new-wave. The déjà vu on One Way Trigger is a little different, and the song has become a somewhat controversial topic amongst fans because of its strange pseudo-flamenco-meets-Popcorn vibe. Perhaps this one would have been better suited to a Casablancas solo effort.
There is one very noticeable yet thoroughly rewarding outlier, though – closing track Call It Fate, Call It Karma, which is the most soulful song The Strokes have ever written. It nods half-heartedly to Tom Waits and revives memories of Ben E. King’s much-covered classic Stand By Me; it sounds like nothing else in The Strokes’ back-catalogue. It has a certain dreamlike lo-fi spaciousness about it yet, unlike much of the material on this album, is a track where Casablancas’ high-pitched crooning actually works, and isn’t being overpowered by the instrumentation or being pushed beyond its physical limits. It’s an unexpected gem of a song, but it’s no album-saver.
Comedown Machine could easily become a footnote in The Strokes’ history; it’s a decent pop-rock record yet it pales in comparison to their previous releases. As for the conflicting nostalgia/déjà vu dilemma, it might just be the result of much of the band’s fan base – who have grown up with Strokes tracks welded to their memories of youth – trying to come to terms with a band who, now in their mid-30s, seem to be clinging on to the remnants of their once consistently enjoyable, youthful inventions.