on 7 April 2014
Plagued by inter-band tension, strife and ill feeling in the recording studio, The Strokes make their audibly bedraggled return from the wilderness with their fourth album Angles. It’s a comeback LP which is quite a hit-and-miss affair, but there’s no denying there’s still some life in the old dog yet.
The herky jerky cod-reggae of “Machu Picchu” is a promising starting point: a very ‘80s-sounding new wave throwback which sounds like The Police sleepwalking through a gig in a bar full of rednecks whilst on a jittery paranoid comedown from amphetamines. But I defy anyone not to hear that familiar-sounding choppy guitar riff at 1:17 and not feel glad that The Strokes are officially back.
The album’s lead single “Under Cover of Darkness” is a successful merging of their Is This It-era sound with a more reflective, statesmanlike approach to songwriting. It’s fairly ambitious melodically, full of catchy fretwork and proves that Julian Casablancas clearly has his eye on vocally emulating the heartland rock of Tom Petty.
The muted palm of rhythm guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. chugs “Two Kind of Happiness” along a groove The Cars would have killed to create, but ends up sounding uncannily like a leftover from Julian Casablancas's solo album Phrazes for the Young, differentiated only by Nick Valensi’s virtuoso guitar solo. The dark and experimental “You’re So Right” relies on a dirge-y guitar riff, but is a weak song overall, and “Taken for a Fool” is essentially a Room on Fire-era outtake made to sound pretty.
The odd ‘80s synths are back out for “Games,” a passable stab at synthpop which brings to mind mullets and Sinclair ZX spectrum computers. “Call Me Back” has an almost bossa nova-esque opening riff, but aimlessly drifts along like an asylum seeker on a rubber dinghy across the English Channel, with only the promise of a xylophone to offer a bit of progression – it just feels a bit disjunctive, like two or three bits of a different puzzle which don’t quite fit together when thrown into one song.
Some critics have described “Gratisfaction” as The-Strokes-do-Thin-Lizzy, which is quite an apt comparison and I don’t think I could improve on that. Casablancas does certainly try to channel Phil Lynott, but what I will say is that, to me, “Gratisfaction” feels close in spirit to some of the filler tracks on First Impressions of Earth. “Metabolism” is another Room on Fire-esque driving rocker, let down only by Julian’s never-ending wail, like he couldn’t be bothered to find a suitable vocal melody to settle upon.
The album’s finale “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” has been played on SNL and is a pleasant little Tom Verlaine-esque 80s ballad showing a different side to The Strokes's repertoire – even if it does haphazardly resort to a cascading nod to Pavement in an instrumental interlude before its second verse – but it brings the whole album to a satisfying, if not magnificent, conclusion.
I can’t quite place what it is about Angles which didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I feel it has moments of brilliance, some of which make me pleased to be a Strokes fan, but there’s something about this album which feels scattershot. It isn’t quite as edgy as it’s trying to be, like it’s been smoothed out with sandpaper in the rehearsal process, stripped bear of its unpredictability and its ingenuity in the production process, much to the detriment of the album's overall sound.
Angles feels like its been shorn of what made The Strokes's first two albums so vibrantly original, but spruced up and polished to hide its foibles. There are reasons for this. For one thing, the band have spoken about the two-year process of making Angles, describing it as being very difficult to make, hinting that there is still bad feeling and resentment amongst some members, with Nick Valensi telling The Guardian: “I won’t do the next album like this. No way. It was awful – just awful. Working in a fractured way, not having a singer there." Clearly, Julian Casablancas's lengthy absences from the recording process means Angles wasn't exactly a band effort.
In fact, some might argue that these songs are just the product of Nick, Albert, Nikolai and Fabrizio jamming away to themselves and inviting Casablancas in to sing over the top of them without putting in hardly any musical input himself. In that sense, it’s not a bona fide Strokes album in the way Is This It was (where Julian wrote all the songs). Amazingly, music critics seem to be in unanimous agreement that Angles is the finest Strokes album since Is This It. But it isn’t. It is a product of how the band described their working process: fractured.
Basically, I get the impression that The Strokes were determined Angles would get finished, by hook or by crook, primarily because they knew it’d sell lots of copies by the shed load and make a ton of money. In the absence of Julian, they rehearsed the hell out of the songs until they became rather drab, plodding and lifeless, lacking many of the key ingredients it sorely needed, so as talented as the musicians undoubtedly are, I can’t help but feel like Angles is like a castrated dog of an album. It is a eunuch. It can still woof, but not at the same pitch as it used to, which is a great shame.