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Julian Casablancas is back on passive-aggressive form on an album of all-out pop and mid-paced fillers

What was on the Strokes minds when they named their latest album The New Abnormal? Its anyones guess. Part of the appeal of this band has long lain in their inscrutability especially that of singer Julian Casablancas. Its in the way he hollers about something so oblique, spittle-flecked and sublime as to be beyond the ken of the average civilian, even as she pores over a lyric sheet.

No one in Camp Stroke, of course, foresaw the atypical, twilit times into which this album would arrive. But The New Abnormal does herald another unexpected state of affairs: one in which this bands long, slow, painful decline finally levels out a little.

These nine songs, two of them already released, arent all endorphin rushes that recall the Strokes imperial period, but they come closer than this benighted band have in ages to some kind of musical sweet spot.

Two decades ago, the fivesome hit upon a way to bottle grubby lightning, borrowing the attitude of the Velvet Underground and the double-helix guitars of Television (plus a soupon of the Cars and rather more Ramones) and made trapped-nerve rock music a legitimate fetish once again. After 2003, and the bands second album, Room on Fire, the co-conspirators gradually fell out with one another and into rock cliches, addictions and solo ventures, to audibly diminishing returns. The bands two most recent outings, 2011s Angles and 2013s Comedown Machine, went through the motions a little too obviously. The Strokes were great when they sounded prematurely jaded, less so when they had earned that status the hard way.

Now there is new-found energy, discernible in the form of a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting on the cover Bird on Money, the artists tribute to jazz horn player Charlie Bird Parker. There are out-and-out pop songs. A cessation of hostilities has been declared between Casablancass gnarlier meanderings in his side-gig, the Voidz, and the effortless, five-way synchromesh of peak Strokes.

Most of all, there is focus. Strangely, the jumping-off point for this late-life flicker is a barely concealed cover version. Bad Decisions, a knowing rewrite of Billy Idols 1981 hit Dancing With Myself, suggests the band might have actually had some fun knocking around in the same room together, rather than mere strained detente. (A series of between-song outtakes labours this point a little too hard, perhaps.) Moreover, Casablancas is back on rueful, passive-aggressive form, while the twin guitars of Albert Hammond Jr and Nick Valensi weaponise simplicity.

Without going to Shangri-La the Malibu studio where the album was recorded and blending in with the all-white decor, its hard to know exactly what the producer brings to this party. But the guru behind the faders here is Rick Rubin, a badass Buddha now less known for his early triumphs (producing Slayers Reign in Blood, signing Public Enemy, unleashing Beastie Boys) and more for his ability to fix stymied creatives. He is less a gilder of lilies than a trimmer of fat, and there is a clarity to The New Abnormal that commends it.

Watch the video for Bad Decisions by the Strokes

Album opener The Adults Are Talking is another giddy keeper, in which the details pop out brightly: pizzicato guitar, a weird backwards cymbal hiss, Casablancas swapping between croon and falsetto. Despite a random mutter of stockholders!, it all knits together.

With any band of this arc and scope, the task here is to taste the fresh fruit being thrown into the bowl of dubious backstage punch. Billy Idol is not the only 80s reference point: Eternal Summer is an unashamed yacht-rock track that pivots surprisingly towards Talking Heads.

What really stands out, though, is how Casablancas starts the song. When I think of you, he trills, in a soul-pop falsetto worthy of Janet Jackson; the frazzled, FX-laden outro instead recalls her brother Michael.

On Arctic Monkeys most recent album, Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino, Alex Turner blithely confessed his youthful fandom (I just wanted to be one of the Strokes, he sang). Casablancas unwittingly returns the favour here: fleetingly, he can sound like his disciple. The start of Not the Same Anymore shimmers like an echo of an echo that would have sat nicely on Tranquillity Base. Youre not the same any more, murmurs Casablancas, straight out of the Turner lexicon, Dont play that game any more/ Youd make a better window than a door.

The New Abnormal remains a frustrating listen despite its gleam. Faster tempos would have helped. Nothing says Will this do? more clearly than a mid-paced shuffle, of which there are a few. Some songs just dont gel. Why Are Sundays So Depressing? is, somehow, less than the sum of its discrete good ideas (the bow-wow-ing keyboard, the stuttering melody). Track titles such as Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus could have used a final edit. (The song itself starts with a cute keyboard brio reminiscent of Metronomy before turning into an odd disco jangle; its not at all bad, neither is it magisterial.)

Listen to Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus

You sense that the albums swaying crescendo of a closer, Ode to the Mets, carries a weight of significance. It really isnt about baseball. As ever, the lyrics provide few clues as to the target of Casablancass weary ire. I was just bored/ Playing the guitar/ Learned all your tricks/ Wasnt too hard, he sneers, as the band headily mix swagger and sentimentality. It all makes for an odd state of mind to get used to: the Strokes arent over yet.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/apr/11/the-strokes-the-new-abnormal-review-new-found-focus