The Strokes wouldn't be The Strokes if they weren't kicking up burning ashes and sparking debate. Comedown Machine, the band's fifth LP and the final product of the band's famous five-record deal with RCA, isn't going to settle whether they're original or derivative, painfully cool or prep school posers. Everyone wants to know, is this it? They're not telling.
Really, though, The Strokes aren't telling. There won't be any press for the record or a tour. We all just have to figure this shit out for ourselves. It's like the first song, “Tap Out,” is big fat “whatever” with a middle finger. After a few twisted, screeching guitar licks, it hops into synthy ‘80s pop beat and falsetto melody. It's an answer to the argument over whether The Strokes should stay Strokes-y (i.e. Is This It and Room On Fire) or if they should run away creatively (a la the un-loved Angles).
Comedown Machine delivers both. “50 50” feels like 2001 Strokes, complete with Casablancas' 3 a.m. phone call vocals and sharp, crunchy guitars. “All The Time” fits well into the earlier stuff, too, with some stand-out work from guitarist Nick Valensi, and at first listen it's a relief to anyone let down by Angles. But the more times you give the record a go-around, the more the synthy stuff stands out.
“One Way Trigger” is percolating synth pop ripped straight from a-ha's “Take On Me.” It was jarring when the band released it as a single back in January, but it grows on you, Casablanca's reaching falsetto morphing from grating to weirdly alluring. The Strokes come right out and say it with the almost-title track, “80's Comedown Machine,” sticking that expected descriptor right on there as if to say, “we know exactly what we're doing.”
The Strokes do care. It's a battle between flipping off expectations but really, truly wanting to be a great band. Comedown Machine puts that on display. It was never going to be as good, as deeply cool, as Is This It, but Casablanca's is pushing (successfully and unsuccessfully) for new territory in his songwriting and the rest of the band find ways to stay fresh, too. If this is it for The Strokes, it'll do just fine.