The first thing I noticed about The Strokes’ fifth album Comedown Machine was its cover art: unconventionally for them, it’s minimal without the laser sleekness of their third album First Impressions of Earth, and coldly industrial with its bullet-point disclaimers. I haven’t seen a label name displayed so prominently on the cover since New Order’s similarly monochrome and sparse Movement issued through the appropriately named Factory Records in 1981. But Comedown Machine’s prototypically stripped and straightforward cover art doesn’t say as much about the album as one may think.
“You’re living a lie. You’re living a lie,” Julian Casablancas repeats on the chorus of “All the Time”, the debut song from Comedown Machine. Every media outlet that reported the song touted it as a return to “the Strokes Sound”. The proclamation was attention-grabbing for sure, but as a loaded promise, it was skeptical at best. The line could have been profound if Casablancas was referring to the band’s failed past forays into reggae, synth-pop and New Wave, especially since the song admittedly sounds like a throwback at least in its simplicity. But alas, reading into the rest of the song’s lyrics, the line seems as empty in significance as the song is a spiritless return to any sort of form.
Comedown Machine’s most straightforward moments, when The Strokes most resemble their younger selves like on “All the Time”, are the album’s weakest and least inspired. But just because the Strokes aren’t totally refreshed doesn’t mean they haven’t revamped in other ways, reworking past motifs with far greater success. “80’s Comedown Machine” shares the woozy keyboards and tempo of First Impressions’ “Ask Me Anything” but with the addition of an electronic drumbeat and guitar calmly ticking over a soft, fuzzed out motor-hum. Drums tumble more grittily than ever on “Partners in Crime”. The Strokes also bolster their new buzzy guitars here with keys more effectively than in the past, utilizing keys where guitars alone have sufficed.
Album closer “Call It Fate Call It Karma” might be the album’s biggest highlight and possibly even one of The Strokes’ best songs. The band skilfully treads all new territory with timeless detachment evoked in no small part by the clicks and pops of pink noise, hush, distant vocals and a downbeat, yet melancholically sweet melody. The song’s final moment, a loosely strummed pattern over a few wide bass notes, sounds like a transmission straight out of the Golden Age of Radio. “Call It Fate Call It Karma” is a starry-eyed ending with a sort of hazy, blissed out romanticism.
Many times, The Strokes veer towards cutting loose all over the new album, and sometimes they do; in fact, the first few seconds of Comedown Machine shows their impulse to let loose, with “Tap Out” and its alarming shred-intro shooting a sinking feeling of dread straight into my stomach. But The Strokes have learned from First Impressions’ fatal mistake to reign themselves in as often as they can by keeping their rhythms tight while still showing off their chops within. They cut off “Tap Out”’s squealing fret-play pretty quickly, and the rest of the song sounds natural: background synths whirr just gently enough; the guitars are never overstated. The spacey “Chances” could also have easily rambled and gotten lost at dizzying heights, especially if the Strokes got carried away with their futuristic sounds, but every detail is played with purpose.
The key word, however, is “often”. The Strokes do overextend sometimes, and in cases like the clumsy “One Way Trigger”, don’t quite know how to pull back. But although “One Way Trigger” instantly put me off no matter how many times I tried to like it (it was just the wrong kind of bubbly and sloppy), when heard in context with the rest of the album, it worked. Chalk that up to The Strokes’ grasp of pacing and sequencing on Comedown Machine: moments that would normally stick out like sore thumbs actually feel at home right where they are.
Where Comedown Machine is successful could be attributed to the fact that The Strokes once again wrote and recorded the album together in the same room, unlike during Angles when Casablancas stepped so far back from the creative process that he only contributed vocals via e-mail. That separation showed in Angles’ scatter-shot dynamic, just as any modicum of renewed focus shows on Comedown Machine. The Strokes have improved an impressive amount, especially considering the quick turnaround between Comedown Machine and Angles, their shortest turnaround yet at almost two years to the day.
The most satisfying part of Comedown Machine is that it feels like The Strokes decided to do what came naturally to them instead of try too hard to be something else. They sound comfortable and sure enough of themselves which possibly explains their steady pace. Maybe some significance can be dredged from the chorus of “All the Time” after all. If “coming down” implies recharging, resetting and, in The Strokes’ case, literally regrouping, then the album title says what the cover art should have. But while The Strokes demonstrating some restraint leads to some of their most successful experiments, it also leads to some of their dullest moments. And for that reason, although this machine just left the factory, it could already use a tune-up.