When the Strokes played a one-off London show at the tail end of 2005, reports seemed to lament the fact that only the old first-album hits, now five years old, really ignited the crowd. Of course, it was on these shores that the Strokes were catapulted into the driving seat of a rock revival, leaving a swathe of English bands in their wake; now they find themselves competing with their emulators.
Tonight, the New Yorker quintet made a more full-scale return to the UK with their third, most adventurous album to date, First Impressions of Earth. Still, there is a rather deflating sense of "comeback" in the air, and some trepidation about the acute self-awareness of singer Julian Casablancas's recent lyrics. On stage, behind the ranks of guitars, is a glowing white Mellotron - a signal of the curious musical departures made on First Impressions.
To a rapturous roar, the band swagger on with "Heart in a Cage". Immediately, the intoxicating retro-futurist lighting suggests something between a garish strip joint and a spaceship. It would be almost shocking if these recalcitrant princes looked like they had not recently emerged from their bedchambers. The studious muso poses and lazy demeanours during performance are so predictable that it's almost endearing, rather than disappointing.
Absurdly, Casablancas throws a cowboy hat into the crowd before they launch into the brilliantly infectious early hit "The Modern Age". Already enthralled, the crowd roars along to the second number. The contrast between these openers illuminates how far this band has travelled: from the sunny juvenile arrogance of Is This It, to the existential angst of the current album.
"Juicebox" encapsulates the new sound: cleaner, bigger and bolder chords; chunky bass lines; vertiginous vocals spanning the very low to surprisingly high; and baroque guitar lines and solos.
Old hits are liberally peppered through the set while the new songs "Razorblade", "On the Other Side" and "Evening Sun" demonstrate their continuing and effortless ability to fuse reggae, jazz and latin touches with their rock-cabaret shtick.
The sea shanty "15 Seconds" sounds like it has drunk the Pogues under the table. "You Only Live Once" evokes Lou Reed's better moments in its knowingly absurd approach to love, retaining a healthy glee with its cynicism, unlike some of the darker moments of First Impressions. It's startling to experience just how many quality songs this band have clocked up. With the third album verging on the length of the first two put together, they are able to play a grand set.
The crowd is overjoyed, and, at times, the band seems a little shocked but delighted to be going over so well. It becomes suddenly apparent that these guys aren't an indie band: they are in the big league.
But something about the new songs, the huge lights, the surprise backdrop, Casablancas's histrionics, and even the diversity and adventure of the current album itself just doesn't quite work. It's as if the songs are walking around in suits that are a few sizes too big.
The quartet seem to be almost holding their breath until the last chord. The craft needs a touch more art - such a talented band shouldn't be so bored with themselves, and the Strokes can afford to elaborate on the originals live. They could even add a cover version or, God forbid, improvise, at least to keep themselves guessing. It's not too much to ask from a band five years on, and still kicking. An album is an album, a performance can be something else, and this wasn't it.Reuse content