What Ever Happened?

Revisiting all five records by the Strokes.

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After two critically lauded albums, the Strokes slowly fizzled out . But revisiting all five of the band’s recordsillustrates a thirteen-year arc where the sonic talent of Julian Casablancas and company outgrew expectations for what the Strokes were supposed to sound like.

The Strokes’ first album, Is This It?, holds up remarkably well—perhaps because it’s an album that was always meant to sound dated. It’s a reminder of a distinct time and place, and for that reason, will likely be remembered as the band’s best album. But while its instrumentation is truly lackluster (it works, but just barely), it’s clear that Casablancas songwriting is what’s holding together the band’s debut, not Albert Hammond Jr.’s squealing guitar solos.

Re-listening to 2003′s Room on Fire makes you realize that it’s essentially their first album rebuilt with more muscle and grit. Album closer “I Can’t Win” reflects the defeatist of nature the opening track on Is This It?. I think “Reptilia” is the most complete idea the Strokes have ever executed—their dueling guitars are never bolder than they are on this song, and yet Casablancas’s voices still soars above them. But much of the album’s later tracks capture the deadpan wit of Is This It with more confidence. When a woman tells Casablancas to meet her in the bathroom, he coyly responds, “I don’t mind.”

Three years later, First Impressions of Earth would be released to lukewarm reviews. For a long time I believed this was the best a Strokes record. Though the excellent opening track, “You Only Live Once,” sounds like vintage Strokes, First Impressions took the band in a new, darker direction. It’s underrated for sure; the band’s third exploration of anger and loneliness feels more mature, sonically and thematically. But where First Impressions stumbles is its pursuit of adolescent angst with a fuller, more assured sound. The thumpy bass line of “Juicebox” undercuts its guitar work, and the solos in “Vision of Division” sound like bad classic rock (though “Heart in a Cage” takes these same ideas and pulls them off successfully).

So much of Is This It’s charm is in the way it’s constructed—simply and earnestly. First Impressions was too different to want the same things. Its commercial failure is both a triumph of growth and tragedy of expectation.

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I suspect that First Impressions’ lukewarm reception caused the Strokes to go on hiatus. The band wouldn’t release a record for another until 2011—five years later. Sadly, Angles is a return to form by a band that had long moved on from that form. The first single, “Under the Cover of Darkness,” sounds almost like the Strokes parodying themselves (and even then, enjoyable so). As a whole, Angles is their messiest album. It’s the first Strokes record with songs written by every member, but it was penned largely with Casablancas working remotely and communicating primarily by email. Still, it contains pockets of brilliance. “Taken for a Fool” is one of the best songs the band has written, one that stretches Casablancas’s vocal range over a kind of spiky, funky jam.

Which brings us to last year’s Comedown Machine, a blatant product of contract fulfillment with RCA Records. The band did no press nor any touring to the support the record. As a final jab, the album’s artwork bears the RCA logo at the top. Still, I’ve listened to this album a lot, and despite its glaring flaws, there’s so much interesting stuff going on that I can’t help but return to it. “One Way Trigger” suffers from a really unfortunately toned guitar riff and someone truly terrible Casablancas falsetto before opening up to one of the best Strokes hooks ever. “Welcome to Japan” shows the fascinating instrumental interplay of Casablancas’s solo record, only to get bogged down by the weight of its own intricacies. But it’s worthwhile to revisit the bad records, if only to better understand the great ones.

The Strokes will reunite for their first live show since August 2011 at this June’s Governor’s Ball Musical Festival in New York City. I’m curious if they’ll perform any songs from Comedown Machine, though it seems unlikely. One has to suspect it’s neither the material the Strokes nor the audience wants to hear.

But in listening and re-listening to these old Strokes records, a narrative emerges. The band just got too talented, at least musically. The simplicity we expected was the band’s best discipline. Casablancas’s song constructions—which teeter between virtuosic and ornate—became unwieldy on the later records, perhaps best evidenced by his first solo record, Phrazes for the Young. “11th Dimension” is the album’s best song, but to get a sense of how complicated it is, see Casablancas attempt to perform an acoustic version of the song. The rhythms and disparate sections seem to elude even its creator. The best song Casablancas has written in recent years appeared on Random Access Memories as “Instant Crush,” which curbed his baroque tendencies to Daft Punk’s knack for effective repetition and restraint.

A second Julian Casablancas record drops this spring, and he’ll be performing with both the Strokes and his solo act at the Governor’s Ball. I suspect Casablancas is now more invested in his own project. Even a band that so coolly embraced indifference has to care at some point. Maybe at that point, Strokes fans will start caring again too.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.