"Don't try to stop us/Get out of the way," Julian Casablancas sings with a snapping relish at the end of Angles, the Strokes' new album, in a song called "Life Is Simple in the Moonlight." That's a rich sign-off for five guys with peculiar ideas about momentum. The New York band's last record, the ambitious and wobbly First Impressions of Earth, came out five years ago. Angles took nearly two years to write and record, including one mostly scrapped set of sessions. The Strokes' body of studio work over a decade on four LPs, not including the solo projects: 46 songs. "I'm putting your patience to the test," Casablancas sings in the first song here, "Machu Picchu." No shit.
But this is what comes from waiting: 10 songs built mostly from basic rock-combo parts, charged and scarred with an exacting attention to musically and romantically turbulent detail. With its sudden-U-turn songwriting and curt execution, Angles is the best album that Casablancas, guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti have made since 2001's Is This It, the cannonball that inaugurated the modern-garage era.
Angles is also the Strokes' first true giant step forward from that record. They tighten the striving that was spread thin across First Impressions with proven martial jangle: Fraiture and Moretti's stoic grip on the beat; robotic-Yardbirds crossfires of crispy-fuzz and brittle-treble guitars. "Machu Picchu" is a sly union of cocky menace — a bony city-reggae gait, wet with echo — and the kind of rapid-strum fury that came with the choruses on early Who singles. In "Two Kinds of Happiness," a motor-pop groove that recalls the smooth futurist lure of the Cars goes to exciting pieces: Casablancas' dry, ragged howl hanging over a tense, stuttering rhythm and a field of stabbing-dagger guitars.
The Strokes arrived at the start of this century perfectly formed, as rigidly pure as the zero-blues propulsion of the early Velvet Underground. But Casablancas once said his favorite Velvets album was 1970's Loaded, their most expansive LP, with its emotionally incisive songwriting and luxuriant pop-hit and ballad dynamics. Angles is the Strokes' spin on that ambition. They shoot wide in "Games," which has too much electronics, as if the track lost its way to Casablancas' 2009 solo album. "Call Me Back" is closer with better risk: terse-chiming guitars in a psychedelic suspense of indecision and no drums. In the bridge, Casablancas sings in a whispered falsetto, like he's leaving messages in someone's ear as they sleep.
Casablancas is one of rock's most interior singers, writing in confrontational dialogue, then singing from behind the guitars, through what sounds like cheesecloth. "There's no one I disapprove of/Or root for more than myself," he declares in "Life Is Simple in the Moonlight." That bravado, cut with doubt, sums up his band's greatness and dilemma. The Strokes invented their own rock. They also want to be better. And that takes time.