Tuesday, February 19, 2013: I had just hopped off the train at Penn Station and was hesitantly treading my way through the crowd, looking for my friend or at least a sign of fresh air. I dialed his number again, scanning the crowd for the familiar face. I set up camp at a Hudson Newsstand to describe my surroundings: “It’s a Hudson Newsstand with a Dunkin’ Donuts inside. I’m looking at a NJ Transit Police booth, to my right is an exit to Madison Square Garden, to my left—” and I froze. On the other end of the phone, I faintly heard, “Hello? Tom?” while I focused my gaze at the man to my left staring at the magazine rack. He looked somehow vaguely familiar. But, surely not. No way. It couldn’t be him…
He walked away and my friend found me. After exchanging greetings, I was still shaken, and I told him, “Dude, I think I just saw Julian Casablancas.” While we had a miniature fanboy freakout moment and debated whether or not to track him down, again I caught sight. Here came a haggard-looking hipster, streaks of faded blue in his shaggy hair, decked out in Doc Martens and a sort of patchwork trench coat. There was no doubting it this time. Within arm’s length of me stood Julian Casablancas, lead singer of The Strokes and personal hero to high school me.
It was surreal. Why was Julian Casablancas, one of the most famous rock stars of the past ten years, wandering around a newsstand in Penn Station on a Tuesday afternoon? Why did he leave the newsstand for all of two minutes and come right back? Was this real life? My friend and I stared somewhat creepily for a couple minutes while we tried to process the whole situation. Finally we mustered up the courage to approach this man who had, for all I had known, only existed on stage, on my iPod, or in music videos. The conversation went as follows…
Friend (to Julian): “Hey, are you in a band around town?”
Julian (in reply): “Umm, yeah, I guess so. Yeah.”
(mumbles of “Cool, that’s awesome. We’re huge fans” from Friend and Me)
Me (trying to stay casual): “Yeah, man, really dig the new track.”
Julian (ever-mumbling): “Oh, thanks, man.”
Friend: “So, you guys got any big plans coming up?”
Julian (thinking): “Umm, not really. No big plans, I guess.”
We proceeded to take a picture with him, which immediately went out to the various social networking outlets in hopes of making my friends jealous. We then shook hands and went on our merry way, making sure to stay calm and exit the station before exploding in sheer ecstatic reverie. I could die a happy man. This was like meeting Elvis or something. Once in a lifetime kind of stuff. And yet, I felt a little strange. Why?
Perhaps it had something to do with the environment. After all, this was quite possibly the most mundane situation in which I could have met one of my musical heroes. His music had meant so much to me since I was a freshman in high school. He was the epitome of cool. The way he didn’t give a damn? Jules was the man! It was nice to see that he didn’t appear to give much of a damn in real life either, that it wasn’t just a stage persona. And it was just as nice to see that he was a perfectly friendly guy. Quiet, yes. But friendly. He shook hands with us, after all. He didn’t have to do that.
But now here I sit, analyzing my run-in with this man as if he were some other guy. And that’s the thing! When I met Julian Casablancas, he suddenly became just your average New Yorker. The moment took me so by surprise that I don’t think my brain had even realized the full magnitude of what was happening. And yet it may have been the best thing that could have happened. My hero, propped up for nearly five years in my mind as this demigod of music, of coolness, became just a man who happened to make music that I enjoyed listening to.
And it was with this mindset that I approached The Strokes’ new album, Comedown Machine. The responses among popular musical pundits to Julian and the boys’ fifth studio effort were mixed, at best. Their first leaked track, “One Way Trigger,” was this weird, fast-paced 80s a-ha-sounding odyssey with Casablancas crooning in his very out-of-the-ordinary falsetto. It wasn’t a bad song, it just wasn’t a Strokes song, they said, by which they most likely meant it wasn’t a song that would have been found on either of their first two albums. Their first official single for the album, “All the Time,” was on one hand lauded as a return to form while on the other hand maligned as a phoned-in effort to please those fans clamoring for the “old” Strokes that made them so great back in 2001. But again, there was no denying the catchy melodies and solid musicianship.
If in their first couple albums The Strokes were the Velvet Underground-loving scuzz-rockers channeling every bit of what was best in 1970s CBGB-era New York City, then on their fourth album Angles and on the new album Comedown Machine, The Strokes are now the occasional keyboard-using, borderline glam-guitar solo-wailing children of the 80s. So they’ve changed their sound a bit. Admittedly, they set the bar high on their debut album. Very high. As a result, they’ve been scrutinized as a band for a decade now, being pitted against their own music and put under a microscope as critics wonder what the saviors of millennial rock and roll will be doing next. Hence all the crazy reactions to Comedown Machine.
But what if we looked at the album apart from all this over-analysis? Remember how I had just come to the realization that Julian Casablancas was simply your average New Yorker? Now, granted, he and his bandmates are not your average musicians—they probably wouldn’t have become so famous in the first place if they were—but they are people, whose tastes and interests change just like ours do. After all, who can really say that they’ve been listening to and enjoying the exact same music for the past fifteen years? I know I can’t. This is an important consideration to keep in mind while listening to Comedown Machine. It’s perfectly reasonable to hold them to a certain standard of musicianship. These guys are good. Groovy synth-tinged tracks like the opener “Tap Out” and dance-pop numbers like “Welcome to Japan” and guitar lick-loaded rocker “50/50,” even with lyrics like “I will say/ Don’t judge me,” are still good, sometimes great, tunes. And yes, they’re even good Strokes tunes! The musical tightness and creativity is all still there, it’s just taking a very different form than it did in 2001’s masterpiece Is This It. To compare the “old” Strokes and the “new” Strokes is almost like comparing apples and oranges: it’s not really a worthwhile endeavor because the music is just so different. Here’s our problem, and it’s true for bands other than The Strokes, though The Strokes have an especially strong stigma due to the timelessly distinct and consistent sound of their first two albums. I think it’s hard for us to separate the “good” music from the artist. When you go and listen to the new album from your favorite artist, your frame of reference is obviously going to be the previous efforts from that particular performer or band. Thus, you get stuck with an opinion of that music only in comparison to that artist’s previous music. Maybe we can escape this. Try listening blindly first: is this music pleasing to your ears? Yes? Good start. Maybe after you’ve made that decision, you can decide where this new music lands in the spectrum of your favorite songs from that band or singer, but until then, take the “good” for the “good.”
Is Comedown Machine The Strokes’ best album? In my opinion, no. At this point in my life, I still happen to enjoy their old stuff more than the new sound. Does this mean that The Strokes have somehow cheated me on Comedown Machine? Absolutely not. Go listen to the song “Chances” and try to complain that they’re not still making good music. I dare you. Until then, enjoy The Strokes’ new album for what it is, and try not to overthink it. The next time you meet your musical idol at a subway station, maybe you’ll understand where I’m coming from.