The Strokes: 'Comedown Machine'
It’s hard being the band everyone remembers revitalizing rock and roll. The Strokes can’t seem to get a break with anything that isn’t their debut album. The harshest critics tend to answer Is This It? with “Yes, it was.” You’ll find a decent number of fans who are pro sophomore LP Room on Fire but First Impressions of Earth and Angles drew barbs and arrows from the critical consensus. You start out the coolest kids on the block and soon you’re being chased out of town. Comedown Machine is an album delivered in the wake of unfortunate exile. Does it get them back an audience with their king and countrymen?
If you’re holding the line on debut-album-or-bust, you probably won’t like Comedown Machine. Their albums have undoubtedly been on a trajectory and this one continues confidently down the path they set for themselves, even in the face of criticism. It’s even more eighties friendly than their last album and not really in step as the sort of courtesy of Tom Verlaine garage rock they made their name with. Like people or ideas, the question remains whether The Strokes’ forward strides are better characterized by progress or decay. Is it evolution or entropy which better typifies their steps forth?
It’s hard to look at Comedown Machine as an answer to that question, so much as a qualification of both options. The sound here is more polished than Is This It? and Room on Fire. Casablancas’ vocals are less throaty. Their instrumentation has always been notable for its punk energy coupled with effortless perfection. Comedown keeps up the tradition of rugged leather boots after a shoe shine.
As for the tracks themselves, “Tap Out” starts the proceedings with a fakeout, conning the listener with a whining guitar which then gives way to the precisely calculated sonics of Angles. There won’t be a return to the Room on Fire after all. “All the Time” is a definite standout, deserved single and sounds like something off the first two albums. Maybe we all really do want them to just go back to their old ways after all.
Plenty of mention has been made of the a-Ha keyboard riffage of “One Way Trigger” but listeners can rest assured the song is one of the more saddening on the record. The Strokes can write perfectly structured, edgy rock singles like “Last Night” and “Reptilia” but here they are trying to duplicate “Take On Me.” Songs like “Welcome to Japan,” “80’s Comedown Machine” and “Chances” all introduce synthier aspects than would’ve been predicted for the band in 2001. Only the third is really capable of pulling off what the other songs try to accomplish. It’s almost like watching Talking Heads transition from the angular claustrophobia of “Psycho Killer” to the edge-of-mainstream oddness of “Burning Down the House” all over again. CBGB’s closed down and it seems like The Strokes are done trying to reopen it. Songs like these suggest that the Strokes may have never really believed their own hype about bringing rock back.
“50/50” is one of the only songs on the album that suggests anything of the band’s former ingenuity and grandeur. It’s built around a lick to die for and backed up by all instruments with the same finesse you’d find on their best songs of yesteryear. Say what you will about their other records, but at least they’re a band still capable of turning out a couple of dead-on songs with each new release.
Comedown Machine isn’t a bad album but it’s certainly a frustrating one. Julian Casablancas and company tend to get treated like the washed-up star quarterback at the ten year high school reunion. Glory days are gone, real life set in and they couldn’t keep up. But I’d have to disagree. Is This It? is definitely the Friday night lights Hail Mary that propels a hometown team to victory but you can’t stick around playing forever. The Strokes are trying to figure out how to come down from the legendary status they attained, trying to discern how a band that once defined cool can grow up. Comedown Machine is a overly mechanical letdown but they deserve some slack.