Let’s just start by saying that if it were anyone besides Julian Casablancas leading this band, it would be easy to identify The Strokes as a band that have completely lost their way. After the mixed reviews that followed their 2011 release Angles, they’ve spent two years purposely out of the spotlight, guarding their movements carefully, revealing little more to the public than little snippets that only heightened the mystery. Their new release Comedown Machine, unfortunately, is only going to raise more questions than it answers, serving only to increase the amount of worldwide head-scratching as people try and figure out just what the crap this band is really up to.
Where Angles was largely touted as The Strokes’ “comeback album”, Comedown Machine is more likely to cause fans to cry out, “Come Back!” Indeed, there are very few sounds on this album that remind us of The Strokes that took the world by storm with Is This It, and they’re basically contained in the second track, “All the Time”, with an occasional brief surfacing in tunes like “50/50.” The rest is basically a hodgepodge of dabbling in retro 80’s pop and New Wave reminiscent of a-ha and The Cars—the music of a day well before the band’s time, and perhaps serving more as an extension of Casablancas’ solo work than an evolution of The Strokes as a band.
Like I said, if this were anyone else, Comedown Machine would be enough to suggest that The Strokes are simply lost, and maybe will never actually come back. But this is Julian Casablancas we’re talking about—a known control freak with a tinge of musical genius. It’s highly doubtful that he’d do anything that wasn’t completely on purpose. There is also a backstory behind Comedown Machine that may give us a clue as to the album’s direction, or in this case, a lack of it: it represents the fulfillment of the band’s obligation to their contract with RCA Records—a point the band is completely un-subtle about making, what with the retro album cover and the RCA logo as the predominant feature on it. Placed in this context, Comedown Machine comes across almost as a throw-away album—something to put out there for the primary purpose of being released from the contract. It wouldn’t be the first time a band has done it.
Yes—while this is speculation, it would explain a lot. The one element that presents a bright spot in this album is that the band sounds like they are having fun with it—like nothing is being taken too seriously here. This hodgepodge of material, the presentation of these odds and ends, could very well represent a clearing of the table, a cleaning of the slate. Making room for something new and different. Maybe? (Don’t bother asking them—they don’t seem to be too free and easy with the information at this point. Mystique is their friend.)
And so, Comedown Machine is most certainly not a master stroke for The Strokes—but then again, it is not likely intended to be. What is really going to define this album in the long run is context—and what’s really going to tell us where The Strokes are going is what they do next.