Album Review: The Strokes’ Fifth LP, ‘Comedown Machine’

Starting with their last album, Angles, before this week’s new release, Comedown Machine, The Strokes have been aiming for a new sound. But as their new album demonstrates, this was definitely not The Strokes we grew up with, but something different – they traded leather for polyester, grit for glitter. That said, the band still has balls (if you except it was artistic growth and not a coup) or else they would have never taken such a bold – some argue ill-fated – step into new wave/dance style pop – a direction many Strokes’ fans are having a hard time coming to terms with.

Within seconds of the opening track, “Tap Out,” it’s clear that the new direction first signaled on 2011’s Angles for the Strokes is now set in stone, whether fans like it or not.

As the 11-track album progresses, suspicion arises that the captain at the helm, Julian Casablancas, the band’s frontman and lead singer/songwriter, perhaps with prodding or collusion from RCA/Sony execs, has essentially written and recorded a new solo album, and the other band members somehow ended up more of a backing band then the actual members of The Strokes.

But how could our pop rock guitar heros have all capitulated to embrace this disco meets 80s pop concept, that is, in the eyes of hard-core Strokes’ traditionalists, dreadfully sinful, if not cynical? Was it in fact a Casablancas coup (hints of which were noted during the making of Angles, wherein Casablancas was rumored to have recorded some of his contributions separately) that the other members didn’t have the time or energy, or even the contractual standing, to resist?

In fact, in Rolling Stone‘s review of the new album, they reported: “Comedown Machine is basically a solo trip for singer Julian Casablancas, showing yet again how much he respects Eighties New Wave.” He may respect it, but why would he use The Strokes – and more perplexing, and disturbing, again, is why did the rest go along – as the outlet for his interest of a 30 year-old sub-genre? Why not just channel that passion for new wave into a solo effort?

The LP’s second song, and the most obvious single, “All The Time,” is like an antidote that takes effect just in time after the shocking transformation of the album’s opening new wave/dance track. “All The Time” is much more the sound we expected from The Strokes.

“One Way Trigger” is yet another dance/new-wave track, and while the reaction for many may be acceptance by that point, after multiple spins, “One Way Trigger” is a pretty solid song. Still, it’s hard to shake the fact that the band sprung this radical shift in sound and style (and delivered more of a Casablancas solo effort) away from the pop rock they’re known for to dance and electronic music.

Perhaps, over time, we’ll come to appreciate Comedown Machine more, but at the moment, we’re, like so many Strokes fans, simply disappointed and confused. In all, one gets the sense that Casablancas and the band really don’t care that much about letting down their long-term die-hard fans, especially in light of the fact that they have not spoken with the press, are not touring and haven’t even put together an original music video for any of the tracks on Comedown – the video “All The Time” is spliced together with archival footage.

Clearly, the band is at a crossroads – either this is it or the band has committed to a new direction, shedding their leathery rock and roll skin that made them international rock stars worldwide following their legendary debut album, 2001’s masterful Is This It?. Some hardcore fans, especially those who have an unhealthy infatuation with the band, will struggle with reconciling this new direction that started with Angles, and we suppose there will be a few really hardcore, traditionalist type fans who will retreat to the band’s first three albums before Angles, as their Strokes mainstays, and largely disregard the last two LPs, as a coping mechanism.

Different people react in different ways, but when a wildly popular and accomplished band fundamentally changes their sound in a direction that many fans are not entirely comfortable with, all kinds of things can happen. In the end, however, there are likely few die-hard Strokes’ fans who are going to abandon the band for ‘mixing it up,’ and, in fact, with Angles and now Comedown Machine, The Strokes are gaining entire new legions of fans that they never had before. new demographics of music lovers who otherwise would not be Strokes your they’ve grown accustomed to over many years, and that expect to hear more of, all kinds of crazy things can happen.

Clearly, some fans, bloggers and music critics, have welcomed and applauded this radical change of direction. The New Musical Express (the UK’s equivalent of Rolling Stone), observed: “It’s flawed, it’s imperfect and it’s downright odd at points, but it is packed with belting tunes. Most of all, it’s fun.” Well, OK, if you’re looking for a ‘fun,’ then perhaps you’ll be satisfied. IRC album reviewer, J. Hubner had a different conclusion about the newest Strokes’ LP: Comedown Machine is a great pop album. This should come as no surprise because The Strokes are a great pop band. They’ve always written pop songs. Sometimes they’re disguised as gritty CBGBs-era post punkers. Sometimes they put on their best Cars moves and plunk the synths a bit.” Read Hubner’s full review of Comedown Machine.

He makes some good points, and as time goes on, we can see a process where we, and other initially disappointed fans, eventually warm up to the album and maybe even come to love it – music has an odd way of being distasteful to the ears at one point and then turning out to be enjoyable later on.

But for now, we’re just let down, and hold firm to the belief that the album ultimately falls flat, that it is short on ideas and simply does not measure up when compared to the band’s first three amazing albums.

Still, there are some tracks on Comedown that long-time, rock-loving Strokes’ fans can cling to, including “50/50,” “Partners in Crime” and the afore-mentioned “All The Time,” which seems to be perhaps the only song on the album that most people will remember a year from now.

The Boston Globe – who gave the album a failing grade of 5 out of 10 – penned: “The Strokes’ hallmarks – those lean melodies, that steely interplay among guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. and bassist Nikolai Fraiture, the urgency of Julian Casablancas’ vocals – are largely absent,” concluding, “In their place is a looseness that’s refreshing, until you realize these guys are perhaps running short on ideas.” Other critics were less forgiving. The UK Independent concluded: “They’re virtually unrecognisable as the band that made their game-changing debut, save perhaps for [the track] “All The Time.'”

Fortunately, Comedown is not a total loss for traditional fans and new fans alike. But it’s like someone who you had a crush on in high school and when you meet again for the first time a decade later at your 10th high school reunion, you’re a bit disappointed. Leading up to the reunion, you had hoped perhaps the old flame could be reignited. And then it doesn’t happen; it’s completely different than you imagined. You both still had a good time, but it wasn’t anything like you hoped, and yet you’re not exactly sure how to explain it all.

Paste, in their review, also raised this point: “Comedown Machine [is] reliably solid, mostly enjoyable, slightly disappointing for reasons that are difficult to articulate.” All said, Comedown Machine is not what we expected from the Strokes, but at the same time, it has its moments; we just wonder if most Strokes’ fans are going to stay on board after the band has substantially changed the flight plan. Is this a new direction, or, is this it?

6 out of 10

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  1. I dont get this review…why dish out critisism for being different and embracing a new direction ?

    I am a huge strokes fan (always have been) and i loved this is it and room on fire when they came out. What was funny about room on fire was that it got critisised for being too similar to the first album!
    Then 1st impressions got praised for being a return to form – ie. being like the 1st album.. when it a was totally different type of album in my opinion and then angles got praised for being different! What’s going on there?

    What’s wrong with listening to the album and just saying i like it or i dont.
    Forgetting about what has gone before i really like alot of songs on this album (In particular Tap Out / Welcome to Japan / Slow Animals / Partners in Crime / Happy Ending)

    In my opinion the strokes have never released an album without 5 great songs on it.

    1. We hear you Sean, and we gradually changed our minds. Besides that, there’s nothing wrong with criticizing something if you don’t like it (at first). That’s what blogs are for. But again, we’ve since come to really embrace Comedown Machine.

  2. For me, this album is redemption for the dissapoinent that was Angles. Sure – there is a noticeably stylistic change from their early work, but the songs are thoroughly enjoyable to listen to – which is all that really matters. Tap Out is 10/10 and I’d say they’ve nailed the new style.

  3. This harsh review (it’s nowhere near the harshest) and all of the others on other sites is completely redundant! Apparently you don’t seem to realise that this is actually not a new album (as such) at all but rather a collection of B sides originally intended for previous albums? In fact the only newly recorded track on this album is 80’s Comedown Machine. Do your research next time and re-write the review in the correct context. Apologies for the venom I am frustrated with all of the reviews not so much just this one. Peace.

  4. Julian Casablancas proves with this album that he is far ahead of his time. The last 4 songs are some of the best songs I have heard in the last 10. This album rivals ‘First Impresiions’ for creativity, invention and swagger

  5. Hate to say it but… their albums have been a little choppy lately …and your right …it does feel at times as if they are at some sort of artistic crossroads. One telling feature that a band is in transition/turmoil is when their albums sound like more like a collection of solos than a real musical collaboration. This band has produced some great music…let hope they can find their grove again.

  6. If mistakes arent acceptable to you why is is this its release date still ’99 instead of ’01

    1. Hey SD: You may need to clear the cache in your browser – the error was changed to the correct date.

  7. I think this is a fair review. I’m not a longtime fan of the strokes, but i get it, and i like what they do. I love Is This It? but didn’t really care for the albums that led up to Angles. I felt that Angles was a great album as well. And I think Comedown Machine is truly wicked. It’s probably my favorite strokes album. But, not being a long-term fan, I understand that my view may be different from the original fanbase. I strongly believe, however, that, as suggested in the review, this album and its predecessor will eventually come to be thought very highly of. Give it a good thirty years. You’ll see…

  8. I do believe there last record was called Angles, not Angels. If you are going to tell people how and when to do their Art, I would imagine you’d at least get the Facts right? Just an idea.

    1. Thanks for your comment. We don’t know what you mean by tell people who and when “to do their Art” – it’s a review; our opinion of the album, which is the central premise of a review. As for Angles, yes we messed up on that (now corrected). We did a universal find and replace to add italics to the title and inadvertently transposed the “l” and the “e”. Mistakes are not acceptable to us, but they happen from time to time, especially when you’re publishing with only three hours sleep the night before.

      1. You’re awesome. Keep up the good work because we like what you do: providing a resource of opinionated reviews that no one is telling anybody they have to conform with. And, seriously, get some sleep 🙂

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