On 2006's First Impressions of Earth, The Strokes' customary surface industry masked an enervation, which left one in little doubt that the band was slowly slipping apart. Julian Casablancas was refreshingly blunt about the situation, admitting in one song, "We could drag it out, but that's for other bands to do".
Four years have since passed, and with them a series of blink-and-you'll-miss-it solo albums that added little to the band members' reputations. Meanwhile, the Kings of Leon – once derisively characterised as "the Southern Strokes" – have found a massive mainstream audience for new-wave boogie-rock. Small wonder, then, that The Strokes should re-convene for another attempt to recapture the spirit of their earliest recordings. Comeback albums, it seems, are not just for other bands to do.
Not that matters seem to have changed all that much in the interim. "Under Cover of Darkness" finds Casablancas still frustrated with the lack of change, and determined to alter course. "Everybody's singing the same song for 10 years," he protests, but the spindly guitars and jittery Big Apple boogie stylings bring the complaint a little too close to home. Then again, things don't go too well when the band drift away from their core style. It's a relief when the limp white-reggae groove of "Machu Picchu" unravels into raggedy rock for the choruses, while the stilted electropop synth hook of "Games" seems horribly misjudged.
The throbbing momentum of "You're So Right" is better, with scurrying hi-hat and plangent arpeggios carrying Casablancas's numbed monotone as he broods ambivalently over a troublesome relationship: "I don't want to argue, I don't want to hurt you – well, maybe I'd hurt you, if I could". And there's a visceral charm to the layered guitar parts of "Two Kinds of Happiness", with counterpoint riffs tumbling over each other eagerly, pell-mell to nowhere in particular. That song, with its analysis of happiness as comprising "what you take and what you bring", offers a rare respite from the general tone of abrasive dissatisfaction and creeping alienation that still pervades the band's lyrics: there are far more rejections and criticisms here than endearments, which leaves the album closer to the mood of its predecessor than might be welcome.
Perhaps the most positive track on the album arrives late, in the form of "Metabolism", a chugging rocker with stalking, prog-rock guitar figures and a wheedling, grandiosely introspective vocal in the manner of Thom Yorke or, more accurately, Matt Bellamy, which hints at a possible shift sideways into the kind of stadium-prog-metal so profitably mined by Muse. Perhaps not the most expected of routes to take, but surely a better course of action than to keep churning out lolloping Strokes-by-numbers stuff like "Gratisfaction" and "Taken for a Fool"?
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