Unfortunately for The Strokes, it seems as though they are never going to be able to catch a break again. I don’t so much blame them, or the music that they have been making since 2000’s “Is This It?,” as I do journalism’s tendency toward histrionics when it comes to “the next big thing.”
The early 2000’s, as I’m sure you don’t need any reminding about, found the cycle of criticism once again looking for something that would be able to stand in opposition to the usual pop nonsense that captures the attention of the masses in general. I think that the first time in my lifetime that it happened was when every band in Seattle in the early 1990s was positioned to save “us” all from whatever nonsense that was on the radio at the time. The irony of this, of course, is that the artist that is put up as the answer to our prayers, to save us from top 40 pablum, become exactly the thing that they were to be standing up against. This is due, of course, to the industry’s willingness to milk an idea dry and only abandon it after absolute and total over-saturation. The worlds part, the pap is relegated back to its placeholder position while the industry figures out another trend that is going to shift focus temporarily. And the cycle continues.
How many headlines did we read that stated alternately “The Strokes Save Rock and Roll” or “Can The Strokes Save Rock and Roll?” One quick google will uncover overexcited fans proclaiming that the band has “saved us” from boy bands.
The Strokes didn’t ask to be some sort of saviors of rock music, or indie music, or anything. Why would they? Being foisted into the spotlight instantly as the “chosen ones” only hurt them then, and it’s continuing to hurt them now. Thanks to the incessant press that their first album received, sure they got a lot of exposure, but the backlash was almost instantaneous. People fought over the legitimacy of the band because Casablancas comes from money. Thus began the “trust fund hipster” argument that sought to rip credibility from the band. Nevermind that such a claim has nothing to do with the music. At the same time that this battle was raging on the “indie” side the fanbase for the band became a mix of indie-rock fans and misguided tweens that fostered crushes on the disheveled badboys of rock. Notice how neither of these sides have the music as their first concern.
It always happens in groups. This time in particular, in the early 2000s it was The Strokes, The Hives, The Vines and The White Stripes. The White Stripes, now disbanded, were able to weather the storm due to their having 2 albums prior to “White Blood Cells,” their most current album when everything went down. In fact, they weathered the storm so well that they only rose to greater heights, gaining critical acclaim for every subsequent effort, and now have an air of royalty surrounding them that they went out on top. The Hives only had one previous album out, and though they are still around creating albums, their sound is completely dependent upon aping The Clash’s riffs and The Rolling Stones’ swagger. The Vines were even less experienced, and only had one song that even did anything. That song wasn’t even that good, it was a catchy chorus with a wild and unpredictable frontman at the helm. I think people were a.) slightly excited that he sounded in some way like Kurt Cobain (how long before people stop “looking” for Kurt Cobain. There was a Kurt Cobain, and now there is not a Kurt Cobain. It’s not that hard to understand) and b.) waiting to see if the group would actually be able to get through a song.
The Strokes were the least experienced of the bunch, yet the criticism machine at large decided that they would be the poster children. They also had the most original sound of any of the bands in that group. In that way The Strokes started at the highest point that a band could possibly ever even hope to attain. Without even having really done anything other than making a thoroughly great debut album, they were hailed as the reigning champions of rock. They weren’t even given a chance to prove themselves, and they didn’t have to.
How could they possibly be expected to thrive in that environment?
Now, 4 albums later, “Comedown Machine” was released and forgotten nearly just as quickly. The reason that it was forgotten is not because it is a bad album. It’s not a bad album. At all, by any stretch. It’s just that everyone, unfortunately, is always going to be comparing everything that the band does to how they felt when “Is This It?” was released. The fact of the matter remains that The Strokes have been a remarkably consistent band. That isn’t to say that they have been resting on their success, churning out the same album every few years. They haven’t been doing that. Their consistency exists in that they have continued to release worthwhile albums while retaining their original sound, finding the opportunity to branch out whenever possible.
“Comedown Machine” has some amazing moments. For example, the downtempo “50 50,” with it’s delicate, palm-muted guitar and Casablancas’ falsetto soaring into the stratosphere. The jerky glitch of “One Way Trigger.” The impossibly catchy melodies in so many of the choruses across the album. For any other band, this would be a triumph. Unfortunately The Strokes live in the shadow of The Strokes and nothing short of Sgt. Pepper would be good enough to garner them the attention that they once received without having to even do anything.
Maybe The Strokes weren’t the saviors of rock after all. Nobody was. And nobody is. The Strokes are just a band. And, as listeners, that should be all that we concern ourselves with.