A cynical listener might accuse The Strokes of trying to replicate the formula that was so effective for 2011’s Angles, the album that reintroduced the New York band to the world after a five-year absence—an absence that sure seemed like the end. But fans ought to understand at this point—five albums and a dozen years in—that The Strokes are content with their limited palette, and seemingly content to find new little corners to explore. So while Comedown Machine sounds—and more importantly flows—like Angles, it finds some new charms.
First, though, the bad news: Nothing here is as directly catchy as “Machu Picchu” from Angles, nor anywhere near the nothing-to-lose energy of early Strokes classics “Hard To Explain” or “Last Nite.” Instead, the most exciting sounds on Comedown Machine are actually those that ride the middle of the road. And in the middle of that road sits the question: Are The Strokes the American version of Phoenix, or is Phoenix the French version of The Strokes? Put some cotton in your ears, and “Tap Out” or “Partners In Crime” or “Slow Animals” could drop right in a Phoenix record without causing much distraction. Those are also some of the album’s best songs: The Strokes sound better nowadays when they’re sweeter and airier. Conversely, the old-school-punk-indebted “50/50” just sounds labored, included perhaps out of obligation to the past more than any present engagement.
Elsewhere—again, as on Angles—there’s a fantastic disco undercurrent: “Welcome To Japan” sounds, strangely enough, the most like it was born and bred in NYC, with nods to both gutter and glitter. (Weird lyrics, though: Did he just say “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?”) “Happy Ending,” the album’s penultimate track, puts all the best parts of Comedown Machine together: the dance-y beats, incredibly inventive guitar performances and sounds, and a vocal melody that’s actively looking for sing-alongs and lighters held high (or phones, or whatever the kids are holding up nowadays). Then comes the big sigh: “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” breaks completely, veering off into the dark corner of a bar, with a guitar meant to sound like a piano and then a real piano dropping in to add some accents. The whole thing spins into a haze that sounds plucked from some ’50s dream. It wouldn’t make sense anywhere else on this record, but provides Comedown with a gorgeous, um, comedown. It’s a surprising ending to exactly the kind of record that will surprise no one—solid, energetic, and with a decent hit-to-miss ratio.