The Strokes making a third album? That wasn’t supposed to happen. After all the tricks they stole from their 1970s New York rock heroes, they seemed destined to blaze out in a storm of booze and leather and Danish strippers, preferably in a five-room suite at the Chelsea Hotel, with a neon sign out the window flickering the words too much too soon. But look at them now. Julian Casablancas got married, reportedly quit drinking, and now he’s writing songs about God and fate and the meaning of the universe. They go for a heavier, beefier, louder sound, recording with L.A. studio-rock pro David Kahne, the guy who produced the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian.” There are songs on this album with titles like “Vision of Division” and “Electricityscape.” “Don’t be a coconut/God is trying to talk to you” — this is the Strokes? Hard to explain, dude.
Fortunately, maturity hasn’t slowed the Strokes down. It hasn’t even matured them all that much — they’re just learning some new tricks to go with the adolescent faster-louder-more-now stomp of Is This It and Room On Fire. They earned a place in the heart of jaded rock & roll trollops with Is This It, the 2001 debut that shocked the world with the revelation that music should be crass and speedy and flashy and slutty. They tightened the trousers of a whole generation — even the Swedish guys who wrote Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” admit they were just trying to copy the Strokes. But some fans thought Room On Fire was too exactly like the first album — OK, everybody thought that, even the band. Song for song, it was almost as excellent, and some of us secretly like it even more, but you can’t blame them for trying new moves.
First Impressions of Earth is different; it’s ambitious, messy, nearly as long as the first two records combined. Guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. get to show off, while drummer Fab Moretti provides the forward momentum that makes the Strokes a killer groove band. They’ve never kicked harder than “Juicebox,” which turns the old “Peter Gunn” riff into a surf-metal snarl, or “Heart in a Cage,” which jumps like Iggy Pop in “The Passenger.” But the music is full of beard-stroking classic-rock flourishes. “Razorblade” has twin-guitar leads straight from Thin Lizzy, and in “Juicebox,” Nikolai Fraiture demonstrates that he can do a frighteningly accurate simulacrum of Yes bassist Chris Squire circa Fragile, though why anybody would want to demonstrate this remains a mystery.
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Casablancas’ voice is still a panty peeler, especially in “Razorblade,” where he wails a melody nicked from Barry Manilow and makes it sound soulful. He pouts and moans in fine mod form, as if he realizes his lyrics need all the help they can get. The guy has an uncanny ear for the did-he-say-that? moment, when a dumb bar-stool monologue veers into a brilliant little haiku. He achieves that effect with lines like “I love you more than being seventeen.” But man, if you thought he was ridiculous when he was chasing girls, wait till you hear him contemplate mortality in “Ize of the World,” as in “modernize,” “terrorize,” “desensitize,” etc. It’s like he’s challenging Interpol to a poetry slam.
Like most rock bands, the Strokes are better at rocking than not rocking, so ravers like “You Only Live Once” beat failed experiments like the synth-strings ballad “Ask Me Anything” or the Pogues-ish waltz “15 Minutes.” Really, this could be the excessive, erratic second album Room On Fire wasn’t; if you switched the order of the two albums, Room On Fire would undoubtedly get hailed as their return to form. But as maturity moves go, First Impressions proves what the Strokes set out to prove: They’re a serious band of dedicated craftsmen, a band that is here to stay. It also proves they could steal your girlfriend without even trying. But you already knew that.