Sayonara To The Strokes: Comedown Machine, State, 2013

I reviewed this album in State in March 2013 and it was not quite the end of The Strokes as I thought it might be. They have had a grand total of one album since. The piece disappeared from the internet with the rest of State in 2018 but like everything else I wrote for State, it’s on Gmail. I only thought of it because I published something about Will Oldham’s ‘I Am A Cinematographer‘ and his entire filmic approach to writing this week. Chatting online afterwards with a musician, film-maker, photographer and Oldham devotee called Alec Bowman-Clarke, I remembered what Will had said in this book about the constant pressing need as an artist to change collaborative partners all the time. If not: dead shark. I quoted him here in 2013 when that sounded just so true. Finally I remember that someone commented on this review on the State website and said—nice piece but terrible closing line. The line I used for the headline here. Oh well. I liked it. As Will might say.

The Strokes: Comedown Machine (RCA).

What do The Strokes think they still have to give, a decade down the road? Why are they still here? It’s not a facetious question; I’m curious. A broader question: what can we expect, or what do we ask, from bands that stick together for so long? There’s no more than a handful that have done so without turning into faintly embarrassing pasticheurs of their early selves. R.E.M. managed it, barely; The Beasties, boisterously; Radiohead, onerously; and Bankrupt will tell how Phoenix are doing. There’s no longevity formula, but these are partnerships that grew and evolved and inspired affection as well as infatuation.

The Strokes, too arch and unengaged, too perfectly formed to be vulnerable enough to be loveable, were different. You didn’t expect emotional engagement from them; they never did stray accidentally into the transcendent. An insistent bass, a jagged twisting guitar line, a scowling vocal and enough energy to power the Aviva for a year and a half: that’s all you’d ask. Ultimately, with The Strokes, it always came down to something as intangible, as unmeasurable, as irresistibility.

After the debacle of Angles—an album as jaded as a sloth on benzodiazepines after a week of nights—Comedown Machine kicks off almost irresistibly. In ‘Tap Out’, a Gallic 80s guitar line underpins a double-tracked, octaves-apart Casablancas vocal, and head-nodding is non-negotiable. Then, ‘All The Time’ bursts in urgently, demanding attention like an out-take from Is This It, let down only by some tediously disastrous lyrics: “You never ask why / You never ask why / You’re living a lie / Baby you’re flying too high”. You don’t want to be too precious, and it’s not like anyone ever asked the question “Julian Casablancas, tell us how to live”, but there are limits. Great tune, though.

Unfortunately, ‘One Way Trigger’ follows, presaging a problem that lies at the heart of Comedown Machine. With a garish, fibrillating, borderline ugly synth riff and stretched falsetto, ‘One Way Trigger’ sounds so forced as to make for uncomfortable listening. I have caught myself wincing when it comes on [Dec 2022 note: still wincing – NC]. It’s the sound a band makes when it doesn’t know what to sound like any more.

The problem is that The Strokes in 2013 don’t have enough unified personality or artistic awareness to keep it going. They either sound like their old selves, but less so (‘All The Time’, ’50/50′, ‘Happy Endings’) or they try too hard to be different, with awkward results (‘Partners In Crime’, ‘One Way Trigger’, ‘Call It Fate, Call It Karma’). ‘Welcome To Japan’ has its moments, but is unattractively pleased with itself, repeating too many times a couplet Casablancas clearly expects to be quotable: “I didn’t really know this / What kind of asshole drives a Lotus”. The line is fine: but shouldn’t every couplet be quotable, when you’re playing at this level?

Magnifying the personality problem, Comedown Machine‘s most successful songs are those on which The Strokes sound literally like a different band. ‘Tap Out’ and ‘Slow Animals’ are both patently purloined from Phoenix, tapping into Laurent Brancowitz’s percussive melodic nous, while ’80s Comedown Machine’, which channels Grandaddy, is moving, amidst repetitive arpeggios, in its rank resignation. ‘Chances’, which I can’t hear without thinking of The Killers, doesn’t work quite as well.

In a book-length interview called Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Will Oldham speaks about bands that stay together a long time in a way that struck me as wise. He said “If you’re always playing music with somebody and spending all your time with them, then they’re not going to surprise you, they’re not going to teach you anything, and you’re not going to teach them anything”. I read that book the week I got this album, and I thought: ten years in, these guys need a really, really good reason to stay together. Playing Comedown Machine, I thought: this patchy, wan set of songs is not that reason.

‘Welcome to Japan’ is all very well, but it could be Sayonara to The Strokes.

Niall Crumlish 2/5

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