The first Strokes album in seven years picks up pretty much where the last one, 2013’s Comedown Machine, left off — another study in what LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy once called “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered Eighties.” Few bands so embody a place and time as the Strokes did New York City in the Giuliani-twilight/pre-smoking-ban era, but now they seem more interested in Martha Quinn’s New York than the one they once defined.
“And the Eighties bands, where did they go?” Julian Casablancas pines on “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” a dinky, paint-by-numbers Human League homage that’s also one of their sharpest party-up tunes in many a moon. Album opener “The Adults Are Talking” chases the beat from Joe Jackson’s ‘Steppin’ Out” into a glistening super-structure of latticed riff doodles and crisp micro-leads, as Casablancas ascends to the most vertiginous heights of his peerless can’t-sing falsetto. “Eternal Summer” works out the band’s latent neon-R&B leanings with a big, splashy track that could’ve been made at the Power Station in 1985. Most encouragingly, the New Order-indebted “Bad Decisions” fondly transports us back to the concise neo-New Wave charge of the band’s classic era, showing just how easy it might be for the Strokes to make a pretty sweet Strokes record if they felt like it.
Even if that song is the only moment that openly sops to the band’s glory days, The New Abnormal still manages to find a fresh, albeit more low-key, way into the woozy late-night grandeur they’ve always been so skilled at evoking. Bringing in Rick Rubin to produce might suggest an attempt to refocus their sound, but some of the most charming moments here feel intentionally de-focused. That casual vibe comes through during the 15 seconds or so of studio banter that end “The Adults Are Talking,” as if this particular get-together is more like a weekend golf reunion for a bunch of college buds who’ve all moved onto to have whole other lives beyond the gig they’re best known for. When they get together these days, they can all feel good about their rich side-project selves: Casablancas has his art-punk outfit the Voidz, guitarist Nick Valensi fronts CRX, drummer Fab Moretti recently released an album with a new band called machinegum, bassist Nikolai Fraiture’s most recent side band is Summer Moon, and Albert Hammond Jr. puts out solo LPs at a decent clip.
Yet where Strokes albums since 2006’s First Impressions of Earth have felt grudging and defensive in their theoretical approach to the band’s cultural and career position, this time out the mood is less constricted. One of the album’s peaks comes on the guitar-grinding, glam processional “Not the Same Anymore,” when Casablancas, in the midst of delivering a throat-shreddingly passionate lyric, seems to forget what he’s singing and just starts mumbling nonsense for a couple seconds — highlighting the song’s incipient silliness without taking away from what still winds up being a convincingly imperious moment of hungover-Television majesty.
“Not trying to build no dynasty,” Casablancas sings against the languorously spaced out synth-ooze of “At the Door.” Sure, there’s some pretentious over-the-top bullshit here (see the lachrymose lounge moan “Ode to the Mets”). It wouldn’t be a Strokes record without it. Mostly, though, the offhandedly bleary mood can be pretty enjoyable, especially in somberly glowing moments like the Tom Petty-inflected “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” and the lovely, softly surfy ballad “Selfless” — songs that feel like afterthoughts, but end up being surprisingly satisfying in their languid distracted chillness. The burden of being a Stroke has rarely felt airier.