The philosopher Antonio Gramsci once characterised crisis as the interregnum between the death of old and the birth of new. In 2001, I sat on the edge of a bed in a small Greek hotel room and watched the screen on the wall tell me about a country called Afghanistan. I had no sense that this was the end of one era and the hesitant beginning of another, but nineteen years on it remains my one vivid memory of the year. Maybe it shouldn’t. In the midst of a crisis, perhaps there is liberation in the idea that, actually, life continues, unyielding to your own sense of what’s important. 2001 also marked the founding of Wikipedia, the first iPod launch and the release of The Strokes’ debut album. But I only remember deserts and mountains.
This year has similarly been defined by a single catastrophic event, and there is the possibility that The New Abnormal will be swept under the carpet by the global pandemic. Further down the line, I think it would be unfortunate for 2020 to be remembered only as the year of Coronavirus; if Is This It was ultimately able to outlive the war in Afghanistan, why should The New Abnormal not escape COVID-19?
The Strokes do owe something to their contemporaries for their rise to relevance in and after 2001. Music, after all, was suffering its own crisis of identity and The Strokes offered a way out. Is This It successfully separated itself from the competing trends of rap your dad wouldn’t like and rock your mum would, the band themselves becoming spokespeople for the modern age. I don’t think there was any intent to revolutionise how a guitar song could sound, but The Strokes did a good job of making subversive rock songs for middle-class city kids. ‘New York City Cops’ “ain’t too smart” they jibed, before cutting the song from the album post-9/11. With Julian Casablancas, Peter Doherty and Jack White at the helm, a new generation would try to redefine masculinity as something witty and a bit unclean, but also emotional, cool and concerned about stuff.
Five studio albums later, you wonder what happened to all that. The New Abnormal has been castrated of its angst; any unresolved aggression that managed to sneak into Comedown Machine has been stubbed out and refined into six-minute-fifteen ballads at the upper end of Casablancas’ vocal range.
The Dead Poets Society motifs of freedom, rebellion and coming of age spanning across the first three albums make less sense when you’re the other side of forty — though it is not yet totally clear what they have been replaced with.
Crisis, then, is the state of limbo between the death of old and the birth of new. With The New Abnormal, The Strokes have conclusively moved on from what they set out to achieve twenty years ago, but not necessarily sought out an alternative. Worst case scenario, the album will be remembered as a slightly better Comedown Machine with a bigger vocabulary of eighties hits. There are certainly moments of brilliance, as in the sulky ‘Not The Same Anymore’ or ‘Automatic Stop’-esque ‘Why Are Sundays So Depressing’ — but it’s harder to access, harder to feel a part of. The Strokes are better off in purgatory; there’s no desire for a second unifying revolution.
In May 2001, NME suggested that The Strokes may be the band to save rock. The band would eventually allow rock music to slip over into a new era. But again, we find ourselves on the brink of crisis, and perhaps this time The Strokes are not the band to save the genre. The New Abnormal is clever, technical and interesting, but has become wise from experience. It knows that there will always be another crisis, and that perhaps there is liberation in the idea that life continues regardless. Why focus all your efforts on building something that will only need to be knocked down and rebuilt in twenty years?
I like The New Abnormal. It has grown up, stopped smoking and started telling the truth. It is cooperative and comfortable in its own sadness, but it is not interested in laying the foundations of a new era. At some point in the next five years a new band will come along and inspire a new generation to play rough, to be loud, to risk getting it wrong. But this is not the album to do that. And that’s okay.
Words by James Reynolds
This article was originally published as part of The Indiependent’s May 2020 charity magazine, which raised money for the British Lung Foundation. Find out more here.