In 2021, the story of the Strokes is solidified within the indie canon: at the turn of the millennium, with American music experiencing a sonic epidemic of chart-topping nu-metal bands and late 90’s Denniz Pop teeny-boppers, one New York City band led the way out with their debut Is This It. To most listeners, their stripped down, laidback style of rock was a perfect antidote to the highly manufactured pop of the day. Beyond that however, the Strokes continue to be considered a product of expats and boarding schools, whose success-on-impact largely came by way of trust fund money, insider connections, and sex appeal. And while privilege is indeed an important factor to consider when discussing their rise to fame, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the Strokes. First, a lot of Is This It’s brilliance shines through guitarists Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi, bassist Nikolai Fraiture, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti, whose precise yet highly musical, interlocking performances come together like a well-oiled machine. There’s no denying their musicality. Atop this mid-fi musical architecture moves the tarred croon of the craftsman behind the record’s music and lyrics—singer and songwriter Julian Casablancas. On the surface, the record is nothing more than a well-executed Velvet Underground impression. However, a deeper look at the music and lyrics of Is This It reveals a unique, carefully crafted work of pop art.
This record truly understands the value of that which is simple and straightforward. Lyrically, it provides an almost-universal illustration of young adulthood through candid stories of sex, drugs, love, and loss. The first words sung on the eponymous album opener serve as the record’s thesis: “Can’t you see I’m trying? I don’t even like it…” This feeling of fatigue, a direct result of the eternal hustle of the modern age, is split wide open across the remaining 10 tracks. On “Soma”, the narrator sings about how people fall into substance abuse to escape life’s unbearably sobering hardships. Their single “Someday” is careful not to indulge in nostalgia by offering a sober look at young love, impassioned and ignorant and inconsistent all at once. And “Hard to Explain” reads as someone who realizes that our needs and wants don’t always align, whether individually or collectively, and that reality is not for us to understand. These songs are quite simple in the way that they reflect experiences we all know and share. They don’t attempt to make any sort of heady analysis, nor do they get off by being blatantly intricate and complex. Instead, they succeed at something greater: they leave room for the listener. Yes, lines like “tried it once and they liked it, but tried to hide it” and “things, they have changed in such a permanent way” aren’t exactly dissertation material, but holding them to such standards misses the point entirely. These stories are necessarily trying to create moments on which the listener can attach memories, dreams, tears—moments that help them understand themselves.
Musically, the record explores a more intricate craftsmanship within the guise of simple structures and relationships. “Barely Legal” serves as a stellar example. This track does not reward impatience; both the verses and choruses are about as elementary as it gets, recycling a basic, diatonic relationship that has appeared a few times prior on the record. However, aware of this, Casablancas uses the pre-choruses as spaces to create more depth and development, providing a wonderful contrast to the rest of the song. Starting at the end of the chorus, Valensi and Hammond Jr. endlessly strum away on a left-over triad, while Fraiture climbs up a short melodic ladder. Then he moves upward yet again, leaping and creating a wonderful moment of tension that gives way to the band’s release right before the chorus. Another example comes in the form of “Alone, Together.” Like “Barely Legal,” the song begins by presenting the listener with a straightforward four-note guitar riff. But this riff is nothing but an opening statement that serves as a foundation for the rest of the track to build from. The first verse strikes next, relying on unusual chord inversions supported by a descending bass line that leads back to the guitar riff. Lush guitar chords usher in the chorus, 45 seconds in, and the bass cleverly dances among them, supporting them. Then, it repeats, giving the listener a sense of familiarity within what is still a fairly basic tune. However, the second half is where this song really gets its stride. After the third verse, Valensi’s guitar propels the song forward, which transforms it from its humble indie beginnings into a blistering piece of garage rock that feels quite different. What’s more interesting is that this move is achieved by simply moving along the chord progression at double-speed; instead of letting the instruments linger within each chord, they drive forward, twice as fast. Without realizing it, the listener is given the same basic material recontextualized in time and arrangement. And then to close, the song makes this move again, somehow making the two sections feel even more distinct. There are so many moments like this across the record, where Casablancas and co. serve up a masterclass in taking simple ideas and stylishly infusing them with nuance and depth. These ostensibly effortless pop tunes feel so cool and collected, but underneath the hood there’s a greater musical logic working hard to be so immediate.
Is This It feels utterly inevitable. It’s part of a familiar lineage of pop music reviving styles native to 30-40 years ago (see: the ’90s and the swing revival and today’s charts full of ’80s pastiche), but it also transcends that context, existing as something greater. Because while the copycat bands that proliferated in its wake like Kings of Leon, Franz Ferdinand, and Jet ripped the style of Is This It, they failed to understand the intangible substance which makes this record so timeless. Here, the Strokes come out of the gate with an all-killer no-filler work of art that speaks to the realities of growing up. However, the ease with which its excellent performances, raw production, and clever songcraft come together is wildly deceiving, as if it took the band the same lack of effort required to fall in love with this record in order to create it. However, as Casablancas remarked in an early interview with Les Inrockuptibles: “It demands so much work to sound so ‘unconcerned’ and simple.” Though it’s too cool to tell you, this record earns its merit by being great at its very core, and that’s why it remains an essential listen 21 years later.