The New Abnormal is what happens when geniuses take risks. Julian Casablancas, frontman and songwriter of the Strokes, could have mailed it in. After satisfying his experimental rock itch with his other group, the Voidz, he could have called up the other members of the Strokes and relived the Is This It and Room on Fire glory days by churning out infectious, guitar-driven indie rock anthems. No one could blame him if he did either. If he had stuck to his guns, he would have delighted critics, fans, and casual listeners alike. But he wouldn’t have been happy.
At the end of the second verse of the fourth track, “Bad Decisions,” Casablancas sings, “I don’t take advice from fools / Never listenin’ to you,” before surging back into the chorus with, “Oh, makin’ bad decisions / Oh, makin’ bad decisions.” The track suggests Casablancas is choosing to expand his oeuvre and venture into different territory rather than spoon feed his signature sound to listeners. The track itself is evidence of this new attitude, an ’80s throwback that interpolates the melody of Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” into a catchy tune. Pretty far-out from the coarse garage rock of their debut.
Don’t assume, however, by the upbeat energy of “Bad Decisions” that this album will leave you with a spring in your step. The New Abnormal is steeped in melancholy and dread. Unlike the racing guitars of previous albums, Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi employ labored, droning chords, with driving percussion from Fab Moretti and bass-playing from Nikolai Fraiture that barely keeps the despondency from sinking beneath its own weight. Casablancas croons in his one-of-a-kind radio-static growl throughout, equal parts deadpan and emotive, and reminisces about relationships with his band, fans, and women. These songs play as the honest musings of a hopeless romantic.
On “Why Are Sundays So Depressing,” Casablancas sings, “I love you in the morning so you know it’s no lie.” While the song features more synths than previous work, Casablancas clearly retains his penchant for songwriting. His lyrics demand hours of listening to fully grasp, and their meanings are often left ambiguous like many of Michael Stipe and Steven Malkmus’ best quips. Yet they reward a careful listener with a moment of epiphany, when Casablancas’ intent suddenly becomes clear. The subtext of his lyrics often points to another narrative outside the scope of the song, like how the dynamic of a relationship can be summed up by this line in “Why Are Sundays So Depressing.”
Right before this track lies the crown jewel of the album, “At The Door,” the first single from the album. Released alongside a cosmic, sci-fi animated video, the track swells with haunting synths and an achingly heartfelt chorus by Casablancas. Baroque in its orchestral ambition, it plays like the Grim Reaper’s soundtrack, giving way to a spectral haze at the end of the song as Casablancas enters the realm of the dead. Perhaps waiting for Charon to ferry him across, Casablancas calls out to his lover, “Lying on the cold floor / I’ll be waiting, yeah / I’ll be waiting from the other side / Waiting for the tide to rise.”
Another highlight of the album is the second track, “Selfless.” The same moody arpeggio repeats hypnotically, interspersed with synth flourishes. The arpeggio sounds like some otherworldly rendition of Coldplay’s “Clocks” instrumental, or maybe if Robert Smith of the Cure got hold of it before Chris Martin did. In typical Casablancas fashion, the lyrics center on a failed relationship with a woman, with him pleading, “Please don’t be long, ’cause I want your love / I don’t have love without your arm / Life is too short, but I will live for you.” Along with other songs on the album, it could perhaps be a reference to his recent divorce from his wife of 14 years, Juliet Joslin.
While the album art features a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat and two tracks—“Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” and “Ode to the Mets”—make explicit reference to New York City, thematically the album points to issues with far-reaching global consequences. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Mikael Wood, Casablancas said, “‘The new abnormal’ was something [Gov. Jerry Brown] said during the Malibu fires [in 2018], and there’s a parallel between global warming and the coronavirus. A similar kind of threat to your reality.” The album functions as an urgent warning, and, at points, like on the solemn closer “Ode to the Mets,” a resigned elegy, as if the time for action has already come and gone.
With production from Rick Rubin, some of Casablancas’ best songwriting yet, and inspired performances from the rest of the band, this is a statement for the start of the new decade: The Strokes are back.
Featured Image by Cult Records