Blast from the Past: Is This It // The Strokes

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Last summer I wrote an article on the latest record by The Strokes and how it looked to move past the legacy of their 2001 debut. Turning twenty-four in the days that followed, I noted that Julian Casablancas, with whom I share a birthday, had been the same age when Is This It started to line British shelves.

Approached like this, time feels overwhelming. How different the world looked after only twenty years. In the article I talk about the crises of the last two decades– how Is This It came to be defined by its relation to the Afghanistan War while The New Abnormal struggled to resonate against Covid. The events in Kabul over the last few weeks have given new sensitivity to the distance of these twenty years and the strange ways in which time can express itself.

My mistake, I think, is in thinking that these things are fixed. It is not simply that years have passed and everything is now different or outdated. In its sleepy production, it would be easy to put the immediate appeal of Is This It down to nostalgia alone. It would be easy to tie its success to a brief momentum for sulky men singing about love and lust and life itself. And by this definition, there is something tragic about the sense that Is This It has somehow become an artefact.

But the real meaning of Is This It is not stuck in 2001. It would be almost insulting to consider it solely for its use in pushing music on all those years ago. The continued commercial success of tracks like ‘Last Nite’ and ‘Someday’ has been built up over the years, through dialectic, further created and reimagined by every throwback Camden club night and Car Seat Headrest borrowing that weaves its way back into the present. In the solo of ‘Last Nite’ and the drowsy marching of the titular song, the record is impressionable not for what it was but for what it is still coming to be.

In essence, what makes Is This It outstanding even to the modern audience is how it stays relevant as everything around it falls apart. Things change. Friends get older. We get older. We change jobs. And around that, the good albums – the really good albums – are able to both retain the past and embrace something about the present. In its production and its pointed references to a pre-9/11 New York City, there is something distant and removed about Is This It in 2021. And at the same time, the low ambitions it sets for itself lyrically, the overruling faith in simple rock-band thematics, make the record malleable, sensitive to change and continually appropriate. Is This It is not defined by its place in 2001, nor its place in 2021, but in the space in-between. 

Looking back on this record and its place within my own life, I know it not only as what it was when I found it but at every stage thereafter. The plain riffs of ‘The Modern Age’ find their meaning in legacy, in every reference to the original played out by young fingers for the first time on a knock-off Stratocaster, in every first-attempt pub concert and in every sappy reunion meetup it accompanies. By any individual metric, granted, The Strokes will not compare to The Velvet Underground or The Rolling Stones– the bands they were pegged to replace. But in this record – and perhaps only this record – the band achieves something far greater than stirring up fleeting excitement for the best next thing. Is This It – unlike last year’s venture – does well precisely because it does not need to be anything. It is in this shapelessness that it performs well merely as a good rock record, alluding broadly to the pains and insufficiencies of urban existence but without the sense-of-self to hold it back.

Twenty years on, Is This It reminds audiences of the magic of truly timeless music, music that exists not only to accompany a life but to come to define it.

Words by James Reynolds


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