It’s been fifteen years since the Strokes’ released Is This It. Today we appreciate the decline of the band that was supposed to save rock.
It's been fifteen years since the Strokes released Is This It. And if you put it on right now, it sounds as good as the day it came out. Is This It remains a near-perfect 35 minutes of no-frills garage rock.
As NME declared, the Strokes would “save rock.” Of course, the Strokes were a product of outsized expectations—they embodied a resurgence of not just a nostalgic sound, but New York’s long-lost post-punk attitude, too. It didn’t matter that the Strokes was a handful of rich kids (two of them met at a Swiss boarding school) and could barely play their instruments. Against all odds, Is This It lived up to most of the hype. “Last Nite” hit #5 on Billboard’s modern rock chart; the album triumphed both with critics and consumers. As hyperbolic as NME’s notions that a single band could salvage rock music, the Strokes emerged in a moment before indie rock had broken out into the mainstream, when the radio was dominated by the tragic rap-rock sound of nu-metal and the not-quite-as-tragic-but-still-embarrassing wave of limp “adult contemporary” rock. The Strokes felt like the antidote. The rawness of frontman Julian Casablancas—part twentysomething angst and apathy—and the nostalgic shredding of Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi resonated with music snobs, Clear Channel execs, and everyone in between. In some ways, Is This It was the right album at the right time; in other ways, it was simply great.
Even though the band continued to put out music—some great, some not—the Strokes never recaptured the fervor and fanfare from Is This It. The album endures even as the band did not. So what the hell happened?
First Impressions would most people’s last impression of the Strokes.
You can chart the slow decline of the Strokes through the records that followed. Hindsight has proven Room on Fire to be a record as strong, if not better, than Is This It. But upon its release, reviews were divisive. The album—musically and lyrically—mirrored Is This It but brought a new vicious edge to it. Room On Fire also showed off that the band had also gotten pretty damn good on a technical level. The dueling guitar work on the chorus of "Reptilia"—still the band’s best song—attested to that.
What followed three years later was the Strokes' First Impressions of Earth, an ambitious departure from the first two albums that incorporated sounds from the Pogues, and a dash of Thin Lizzy. Even Casablancas, at many points, starts to sound like Iggy Pop. First Impressions remains deeply underrated. (“Heart in a Cage” still bangs.) Critics disliked the album’s lack of focus, but really, the record just lacked a killer single. (“Juicebox,” really?) The singles barely charted, and First Impressions would most people’s last impression of the Strokes.
Disillusioned, the band went on an extended hiatus, resurfacing in 2011 with Angles. Rumors circulated that Casablancas was absent from a huge chunk of the songwriting process, and his vocals were recorded separately. (In a GQ profile from two years ago, Julian Casablancas tellingly said, "A band is a great way to destroy a friendship, and a tour’s a great way to destroy a band.”) The result was what you would expect: Angles felt fractured, with moments of brilliance but more forgettable ones. "Under the Cover of Darkness" sounds like the band's attempt at recapturing the energy of Is This It, but the return to form lacked conviction.
You might not have even noticed when Comedown Machine was released in the summer of 2013. An obvious contract obligation (as a nice “fuck you,” RCA's logo appears on the album cover), Comedown Machine wasn’t even supported by a tour. And yet even on the Strokes’ throwaway album, you can hear small moments of brilliance. “Welcome to Japan” bops and grooves; “One-Way Trigger” features one of Casablancas’s catchiest melodies in years, even if it also features some of his worst singing. The album is all over the place, both in terms of quality and influence, but you can see the band’s apathy manifest itself in weird and fascinating explorations.
The Best Strokes Songs You've Probably Never Heard
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When a band represents a certain thing at a certain moment in time, our expectations of how they should sound and what they should do are crystallized. The Strokes were supposed to be scrappy New York dudes playing throwback, Velvet Underground-inspired garage rock; is it unreasonable for us to expect that they’d do that forever?
Here’s Pitchfork ed-in-chief Ryan Schreiber’s 2001 review of Is This It:
The Strokes are not deities. Nor are they "brilliant," "awe-inspiring," or "genius." They're a rock band, plain and simple. And if you go into this record expecting nothing more than that, you'll probably be pretty pleased. See, while I can't agree with the Strokes' messianic treatment, I'd be lying if I said I thought Is This It was anything other than a great rock record.
The thing that tanked the Strokes’ mainstream success is that they stopped wanting to make straightforward rock records. And could you blame them? They learned to play their instruments and began expanding their palette of influences. In a sense, the Strokes stopped pretending to be musicians.
Casablancas has historically been a brilliant songwriter, but his virtuosic tendencies pushed him to make music that was more complicated than it was listenable. His first solo album, Phrazes for the Young, has a few bangers on it (see "11th Dimension", which sounds like David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” tripping on synths). The follow up, Tyranny, is a dissonant hour of muddy guitars and drum machines. Releasing the ten-minute-long “Human Sadness” as the album’s first single feels a little bit like Casablancas giving the middle finger to anyone who yearns for the early days of the Strokes.
There’s no clearer example than "I’ll Try Anything Once," a B-side that features Casablancas solo, his fingers meandering on an electric piano. “Ten decisions shape your life, you'll be aware of five about,” he croons. It’s a remorseful, melancholic meditation on his isolation—about as close as Casablancas ever gets to being soulful. The song was then punched up into a radio-friendly single called “You Only Live Once” that barely charted. But among Strokes stans, “I’ll Try Anything Once” remains one of the band’s most enduring recordings.
Earlier this spring, Casablancas and company released a new three-song EP, Future Present Past. It's largely unremarkable except for the fact that the band seems to be trying again—enough to embark on a short tour and record a music video for the single, "Threat of Joy." But even that song is indicative of late-career Strokes; its title reflects that the band is simply afraid of having fun anymore.