The Strokes - Taken for a Fool
Like the best tracks off of 2011’s Angles, the swaggering pop single “Taken for a Fool” marries the Strokes’ old garage sensibilities with more modern production that could almost be from Phrazes for the Young. Angles took nearly two years to make, but the final product is great material: simple, clean rock songs with terse beats, walls of sound that build up breathtakingly, and subtle layers of electronic samples. This record shows the Strokes continuing to change and expand their sound to really create something interesting and fairly beautiful. Rolling Stone argues (pretty compellingly) that the Strokes have always wanted to experiment with their sound like this:
The Strokes arrived at the start of this century perfectly formed, as rigidly pure as the zero-blues propulsion of the early Velvet Underground. But Casablancas once said his favorite Velvets album was 1970’s Loaded, their most expansive LP, with its emotionally incisive songwriting and luxuriant pop-hit and ballad dynamics. Angles is the Strokes’ spin on that ambition.
As for the lyrics on Angles, they’re far simpler than those Julian Casablancas has written in the past- perhaps more abstract or perhaps more superficial- but they work really well with the brighter sound. In this track-by-track guide, Casablancas dismisses some of his happier lyrics on Angles as “cheesy,” but I tend to enjoy them more than his more emotional or political lyrics. Another thing I love about the lyrics on Angles is the fact that Casablancas often throws in really profound or witty lines right in the middle of a verse, rather than highlighting them. One of my favorites is this one, which happens to be from “Taken for a Fool:”
Blame yourself for once, quit putting it on me,
I can’t help you ‘cause I’ve seen what it means,
It’s so early, I don’t want to wake up.
We’re so lucky ‘cause we never grew up.
Before we begin to talk about the Strokes’ fourth album, Angles, let’s set up some perspective.
The single “Under Cover of Darkness" is released on February 11, 2011. Angles, the Strokes’ first record in five years, is going to be released in about a month. And “Under Cover of Darkness” is a completely gorgeous song. With its traditional post punk influences, stunning high guitars, and catchy bassline, “Under Cover” could possibly fit in on any of the three Strokes records released so far. So it would be logical to expect Angles to sound like the old Strokes… right?
Wrong. And the reason lies in a single line from “Under Cover of Darkness:” "I’ve been all around this town/Everybody’s singing the same song for ten years." That line is a deliberate jab at fans who expect the Strokes to stay the same forever. It’s been ten years since they released Is This It. It’s been a whole decade since they were that young, carefree, garage rock revival band. This lyric feels like the band is appealing to their audience: so much has changed in the last ten years. Allow us to change, too.
The music video for “Under Cover of Darkness” is released a couple of weeks later, and it further highlights that one line. As Casablancas sings “Everybody’s singing the same song for ten years…” he picks up his mic stand and throws it far away, just as he did ten years previously in the music video for the Strokes’ 2001 flagship single “Last Nite.” And now it’s clear that they’re making a point: don’t expect us to be who we were a decade ago. You may still be singing that song from ten years ago, but we aren’t.
And that’s the point I’m trying to make, too. As we begin to talk about Angles, Comedown Machine, and the future of the Strokes, try to come in with an open mind. Allow the Strokes to experiment with new sounds and new ideas. Don’t overlook their new music just because it doesn’t sound like “Last Nite.” As Casablancas sings on “Under Cover of Darkness:” “I won’t just be a puppet on a string.” The Strokes know very well that the world would love it if they just kept putting out simpler, more rock-oriented albums. But they’re making the wise decision not to.
The Strokes in the studio (2010)
There were countless factors that made the Strokes an especially appealing band for young people in the early 2000s, but the relationship between the members of the band was definitely among them. It was the kind of unique friendship that each and every one of their young fans would have longed to be part of. For example, take their hilarious 2002 tour documentary, “In Transit,” which the members of the band filmed themselves- you see the five musicians just messing around, cracking jokes, hanging out, and genuinely appreciating each other’s company. That video is legendary among Strokes fans- full of the best memories of the Strokes’ “good old days,” back when the band members were younger, more carefree, and truly best friends. However, as the band grew older, they grew apart. They had families to worry about, they made other friends to spend time with, and although the members of the band saw each other occasionally during the hiatus, it was nowhere near the amounts of time they spent together in the early days of the band. By the time it came to recording their fourth album, Angles, relations were, infamously, a little bit strained. This video, however, shows the lighter side of recording Angles- and it brought the Strokes fanbase a little bit of hope and laughter during that tense time.
It’s 2010 and the Strokes have finally come off hiatus. They’re recording new material and fans have no clue what to expect. Their manager Ryan Gentles posts an “In the Studio” video on YouTube, which is extremely similar to “In Transit.” Even without reading the comments, you can immediately feel that nostalgia, the comfort that the band members still have this sense of humor. They still love each other in that silly, boyish way, eight years after “In Transit.” Breathe a sigh of relief.
Of course, the video isn’t perfect. There’s the glaring absence of Julian Casablancas- he didn’t record with the band for their fourth album, choosing instead to record his vocals separately. And, of course, it’s been a long while since the Strokes last spent long hours in the studio together and toured together extensively. They’re not quite as at ease with each other as they were in the past. But this video does contain moments that feel so funny and nostalgic, they could break your heart. It’s even produced one of the Strokes fandom’s favorite inside jokes. At 7:07 in this video, bassist Nikolai Fraiture is accused of breaking the video camera, and the band easily slips into a jam session, with drummer Fab Moretti singing “Nikolai broke the zoom… Oh, yeah… Nikolai broke the zoom.” It’s hilarious, adorable, and feels like it’s straight out of “In Transit.” Straight out of the good old days.
But don’t get me wrong, Julian does not abandon his rock star persona one bit during his Phrazes era. Of all of the remarkable things about the Strokes, one of the most remarkable is their constant ability to stay cool.
Julian Casablancas - Left & Right in the Dark
"Oh, I’ve got music coming out of my hands and feet and kisses…"
It’s a common Strokes phrase (or should I say phraze?) that “the Strokes are a democracy but Julian is always the president.” A perfect example of this is how the Strokes’ evolution plays out following the release of Casablancas’ fantastic 2009 solo album Phrazes for the Young. More than First Impressions of Earth and certainly more than any of the other band members’ side projects, Phrazes is to influence the next Strokes albums directly.
By the release of Phrazes, it’s been eight years since Is This It, and four years since First Impressions of Earth. Strokes fans aren’t taken aback by the drastic changes in sound on Julian’s new record as much as they were with the changes on First Impressions. And some are just willing to accept any Strokes-like material. But Phrazes turns out to be really, really great. Who would have thought that the garage rock revival star could release such a good album full of synths and even country influences? Highlights include the intricately layered “Glass” and the adorable closer “Tourist.” Catchier tracks like single “11th Dimension” and this one, “Left & Right in the Dark,” have killer hooks and politically charged lyrics- it seems that Casablancas tested that out on First Impressions of Earth and perfected it here.
What if the Strokes had never existed and this were Casablancas’ debut album? Could it have gotten any publicity? Because without the shadow of simple, nearly flawless garage rock behind it, this synth pop album would have gotten excellent reviews.
It’s 2007, and the Strokes have spent the last year touring First Impressions of Earth. A new message has just been posted on the Strokes’ MySpace page. It reads: ”The band are still enjoying some much needed ‘off time’. I wouldn’t expect anything to come out this year.”
Over the next few years, all of the members of the Strokes, excluding Nick Valensi, are going to pursue side musical projects. Some of them are going to settle down and start families. The Strokes are not going to release another album until 2011.
Some songs missed the mark. I think people missed the messed-up excitement of what we had. We could’ve stayed a little weirder and people would’ve come around to us, but we rushed to it by trying to sound slicker.
Julian Casablancas on First Impressions of Earth, 2011.
Five years after the album’s release, Casablancas listened back to it and expressed a little bit of regret. I personally think he’s being too hard on it- what about you?
“Don’t think that everything is gonna stay the same/That’s impossible.”
Everyone easily picks up on the change in the Strokes’ style of music, but not many reviews early on mention the lyrics on First Impressions of Earth. In the past, frontman Julian Casablancas has written about youth and love and relationships in the big city, but now he’s grappling with concepts bigger than that.
This album shows Casablancas at his fieriest, vocally as well as lyrically. His lyrics are scathing (“They love you or they hate you/But they will never let you be”), pessimistic (“Can’t you see the sky is not the limit no more?”), melancholy (“I went to a concert and I fought through the crowd/Guess I got too excited when I thought you were around”), and briefly political on the experimental track “Ize of the World” (“A child to criticize/Young adults to modernize/Citizens to terrorize/Generations to desensitize”). He doesn’t go too far into the spiritual, though, singing "God is trying to talk to you/We could drag it out, but that’s for other bands to do."
Okay, it’s true, the lyrics on First Impressions are confusing, convoluted, and just plain weird. But they show Casablancas exploring what he can do with words, and how he can dig deeper with the themes he’s previously written about. For example, he mentions the word “city” many times on First Impressions, which shows just how many meanings his hometown has for him.
"Change your mind tonight/You belong to the city now."
"See, I’m stuck in a city but I belong in a field."
"Weapons to synchronize/Cities to vaporize."
"Why won’t you come over here? We’ve got a city to love."
"It’s almost after midnight. I can see the city lights ahead."
The city is portrayed as a source of comfort and a place of discomfort, as a home and a trap, as a place where you belong, a place you love, a place you can recognize from a distance faster than you can recognize yourself. And here is where Casablancas’ lyrics really shine on First Impressions: when he forms patterns and when he writes about things he really cares about.
I could also argue that First Impressions is a natural stepping stone between the witty lyrics Casablancas wrote on the Strokes’ early albums and the weightier lyrics he takes to writing later on. That just as First Impressions of Earth shows the Strokes exploring themselves musically, it also shows frontman Julian Casablancas exploring himself lyrically. Sure, this album wasn’t a masterpiece, musically or lyrically. But in the grand scheme of the Strokes’ evolution, First Impressions of Earth's in-betweenness makes a lot of sense.