I had a strange dream two months ago. I don’t remember all the details, but it left me feeling so affected that something about it still lingers—one of those.
The general gist of the dream was that I was alone with a woman and I was in love with her. I don’t know who this woman was, but she looked like Jessica Chastain, only with rounder features like Uma Thurman, except that she reminded me of a woman that I used to work with.
Clearly, I am not doing this description justice, but I sat in a chair facing her and she told me something profound.
“You understand,” she said, “that I’ve loved you from the beginning, but we can’t do that all again.”
In the dream, I understood what she meant. And I didn’t long for her sexually or even romantically. Instead, I longed for something much larger than either of those feelings. Something that I can only tie to my youth, of things passing that are forever unattainable. However, I don’t miss the past—though I do often think and feel that’s where I can find the answers.
So, I woke up mournful for a dream. But I drank coffee and moved on into the loud winter sunlight.
Comedown Machine is the latest album by The Strokes. Pitchfork first streamed the record on their website on March 18, but, as many of you already know, it was officially released on March 26.
I’m a notorious Strokes “homer,” so I’d been trawling the Internet for the first illegal signs of the album for weeks. As always, I was overly excited to hear the new material, but this time around I also wanted to get Comedown Machine ahead of time so I could try my best to get the first word out about The Strokes’ latest release. It may have been a pipe dream, but I was tired of reading irrational and clichéd negative opinions about a new Strokes album.
Predictably, the early reviews were bad; and in some cases shockingly lazy and ill informed. However, during the last week or so, outlets like Pitchfork, The A.V. Club and AllMusic released critical, fair and in some cases enlightening reviews of Comedown Machine. Like any music fan, I don’t want a review to only praise the bands and records that I love; but I do want them to be fair and at least make me question or quest to find out why exactly I do appreciate the music that I do love.
And, predictably as well, I love Comedown Machine. I have (and I am not joking about this figure) listened to it approximately sixty-two times since it first appeared on Pitchfork. In that entire time, I have been constantly searching for the words to describe why I love the album and why I love The Strokes in general. I’ve come up with dozens of different defenses to my friends with more discerning tastes; I’ve gotten drunk and spouted soliloquies containing all the righteous “fuck you’s” I was going to unleash upon the world about why The Strokes are great; and I’ve tried to piece together speeches of commiseration for those friends of mine who still wish the best for the band.
No matter what I’ve expressed so far, I find myself unable to truly say anything more in a “critical” way than what Grantland’s Steve Hyden said in his piece on The Strokes this past Tuesday. Allow me to present a few liberal examples of Hyden’s position:
Listening to Is This It now, what’s immediately apparent is that, from the beginning, The Strokes’ sense of self was fully formed. It normally takes a band two or three records to develop a signature sound, but sample any five-second snippet from any song on Is This It and it will be instantly recognizable as The Strokes. The intricately interlocked guitars, the live drummer who approximates a drum machine, the monotone vocals that sound like they were run through a crappy late-’90s cell phone — even when The Strokes bite hard from the Velvet Underground or Television, it still comes out indelibly Strokes-ian.
Beyond the music, The Strokes presented a perfectly conceived and well-rounded persona. The Strokes are the only rock band of the ’00s whose members stood out as distinct entities while also seeming inextricable from the whole. Casablancas and guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. were the Mick ‘n’ Keith figures — they met as teenagers in Swiss boarding school, and continued living together in a modest two-bedroom apartment after Is This It made them Internet famous. Valensi was the rock-and-roll one, with his killer cheekbones and Izzy Stradlin do. Fraiture was the suitably stone-faced bassist, and Fabrizio (Fab!) Moretti was the cute, curly-haired drummer who dated Drew Barrymore for several years…
I’m inclined to reflexively defend whatever The Strokes do at this point, because the public has been waiting a decade for them to implode and The Strokes keep on (barely) holding it together…Perhaps Casablancas’s falsetto vocal on the bizarre robo-klezmer track “One Way Trigger” doesn’t quite work, but it’s also the most vulnerable he’s allowed himself to sound on a Strokes record. “Tap Out” and “Welcome to Japan” might be lightweight new wave trifles, but they’re exceedingly well-crafted trifles. If “All the Time” is a Strokes song on autopilot, at least The Strokes stand alone in the arid mainstream rock landscape as a band with an iconic musical identity.
For me, critically, it’s hard to expand any further on what Hyden has already so articulately laid out. All I can say is that I wholeheartedly agree with him. The reason I find myself constantly going to bat for The Strokes is that, no matter the cultural relevance or outright quality of the songs they release, there is something indelibly “whole” and complete about The Strokes—they are The Strokes and they have been that way from the beginning.
Sure, they always look cool and they may very well be the last example of the prototypical “band,” but what I love about The Strokes is that no matter the overall quality of the albums they release, I am going to get The Strokes. The songs may zig when I want them to zag—and clearly not in the “good” way that, say, David Bowie did in his heyday—but at the end of the day I know that I am going to get Julian crooning (or now falsettoing), I’m going to get Nick and Albert rapidly strumming at their guitars (see “Partners in Crime” on this new record), and I’m going to get Fab and Nikolai plugging away in the back, content to anchor.
Now, that may not be the most inspirational or admirable stance on a rock band or any piece of art. Our greatest rock and pop artists—like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Prince or, another pet favorite of mine, even Wilco—change from record to record while still maintaining a high level of quality. But I suppose that the appeal of The Strokes, for me, is that they are something recognizable and reliable in a world that may not always be that way.
When The Strokes released their first album, I was just sixteen years old. I wasn’t looking for some kind of icon, I was just looking for a good rock n’ roll record—though, I jumped on the “boys in the band,” Beatles, Stones projections just like everybody else. But, overall, I came from a much simpler place. And perhaps because they were formative years, The Strokes brand satisfied some unfulfilled desire deep within my teenage soul and, because of that fact, I’ll always be a loyal customer.
However, I have never looked to The Strokes to return me to any kind of glory years and I refuse to ever do so. I don’t want to go back to 2001; I don’t want to start all over again.
Now, after two weeks of constantly reading about The Strokes and repeatedly listening to Comedown Machine, I feel like I have some context on my vague dream.
Most people don’t like their jobs. Sometimes I talk too much about how much I don’t like my day job and feel bad. Regardless of that fact, I was at my office when Pitchfork made Comedown Machine available to stream. Luckily, my boss was working out of town for the week, so I could plow through my work and listen to the new album on headphones, which I did religiously for the entire week.
I digested the album track-by-track, then as a whole, then track-by-track again, and then as a whole. I memorized hooks (“Happy Ending”), melodic twists (“Slow Animals”), small, buried guitar riffs (“50 50”) and vocal tics (“One Way Trigger”). Each day a different song cycled through my head on my earbudless commute to work. And each evening, as I was pushing past 8:00 PM at my desk on my fifth or sixth listen of the day, the album would press me on to the finish line, my foot tapping until I broke the tape and could finally go home.
For me, The Strokes will always be The Strokes. Yet, not in some Winnie the Pooh way. They’re in my blood now for whatever reason, and I continue to grow and age, as do they. Obviously, our lives will always be separate and remote, but at least we can check in every few years, and they can remind me that whatever I’m doing isn’t so bad—as long as I can listen to new music from a band that I unconditionally love.