The Old Normal
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

The Old Normal

April 19, 2020

The Strokes released a new album last week, their sixth and first in nearly seven years. This is important only if you’re of a certain age and ilk, and I am both. As Amanda Petrusich wrote recently in The New Yorker, describing herself as a “young, broke, privileged, and oblivious” first-year MFA student in New York as the band began to break out around the turn of the century, “I was almost too perfectly positioned to receive the Strokes as a kind of nihilist gospel.”

Same. I was a year away from being a first-year MFA student—and would be in Boston, not New York—but that’s all close enough to not make much of a difference. If you had hipster-ish leanings at all, the Strokes were something you knew about.

Or, rather, they were the thing to know about in 2001 if you listened to rock music, a group that was dwindling every day. Among rock critics the Strokes were a revelation, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. Jay Z’s The Blueprint sold 427,000 copies in its first week and that album was released on 9/11. A month later, the Strokes released their debut, Is This It, and it sold 16,000 copies in the first week. But the Strokes had buzz, and, as last offseason in Nebraska demonstrated perhaps a little too plainly, at the right time and place buzz can be the most powerful force in the world.

It would’ve been only that if Is This It wasn’t actually good, but the debut album was great, every bit as good as all of the scenesters and music journalists were declaring it to be every chance they could. Had it not been, the Strokes would’ve been little different than many of the bands that rode the wave Is This It created. Looking at you the Vines and Longwave and the Hives. The music press was quick to hype those bands as Strokes-like, additional players in the great garage rock revival, but while they were all good enough at times, none of them really had “it.”

None of them had Is This It, a top-to-bottom classic that wasn’t all that innovative but struck the right nostalgic notes at the right time when it could feel new for a new generation.

The new album, at least to my ear, is the Strokes’ best since that debut.

* * *

If you’re still with me at this point in this “football” column, here is something perhaps more relatable: the new Strokes album, officially announced on Feb. 11, is titled The New Abnormal. There were five NBA games and 22 Division I basketball games played on the day of the announcement. Nebraska almost knocked off Maryland that night. There were 12 reported cases of COVID-19 infections in the U.S. then. We still went to work and watched sports and at least some of us took note of a new Strokes album on Feb. 11.

By the time The New Abnormal was released on April 10, abnormal was the new normal. I greeted the new album with more excitement than I would’ve normally simply because it was something to be excited about. Didn’t matter that my interest in the Strokes had been steadily waning since 2006. This album might strike the right nostalgic notes at the right time when it could feel new for me. 

I thought of this new Strokes album often as I spent more than two hours watching Nebraska hold a video-game spring game on Saturday. I thought it was nice that Nebraska decided to do something on the day the actual spring game was meant to be played, but I was pretty skeptical. One of the lessons I learned quickly during quarantine was how much I’m not interested in the wave of content engineered as a reaction to the current state of things. I respect the effort—we’ve made some ourselves—but most of the time I just come away feeling as if the lack of the thing I actually want, just a practice football game in this case, is only underscored by whatever it is that’s meant to replace it. HORSE isn’t basketball. Sports movies aren’t sports. Concerts aren’t held in immaculate living rooms.

But that wasn’t how I felt about Saturday’s simulation. It all kind of worked. People were into it, they participated, they had fun. It didn’t feel normal, it felt exciting and spring games often aren’t that. We hype them up as a bit of football before the offseason fast, a chance to get a sense of how the team’s coming together, but it’s always better in theory than in practice on both fronts. Remove both expectations, however, and it becomes a little easier to just enjoy it, even if it was played on an Xbox.

The new abnormal.

I’m not going to attribute particular prescience to the Strokes for that album title. Feels like more of an unhappy coincidence, though looking at the song titles does make me wonder if I shouldn’t dismiss their fortune-telling abilities so quickly. Here’s the tracklist for The New Abnormal:

  • The Adults Are Talking
  • Selfless
  • Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus
  • Bad Decisions
  • Eternal Summer
  • At the Door
  • Why Are Sundays So Depressing
  • Not the Same Anymore
  • Ode to the Mets

All of the songs except for the two I crossed out feel like they could be about this unique time in history, though maybe the Mets need an ode right now as much as the rest of us do. The songs are not pandemic-inspired, but they titles make it look like they could be and that’s the sort of retrospective importance that gets assigned to works of art all the time. My favorite song on the album is “The Adults Are Talking,” and I think that’s because of the music, but maybe it’s a reflection of my desire to feel like there are, somewhere, adults talking, people who don’t have the answers but know the choice is theirs to make. Accepting the reality of the situation would mean a lot right now. 

Or, maybe that’s just me linking my state of mind to the feeling after the fact.

Either way, that song is good, the rest of them are good and maybe that’s good for Nebraska football.

* * *

The Strokes have always been great about starting strong. That starts with the very start of the band. They were huge, relatively speaking, before they even had enough work to merit the hype. But the Strokes have also maintained a knack for starting albums strong, even the albums I’m pretty indifferent about.

“Is This It” tells you what Is This It is about right out of the gate. Room On Fire, the much anticipated follow-up to the debut album, lets you know that not much has changed with album-opener “What Ever Happened?” and in this case that’s a good thing. By the time we reach 2006’s First Impressions of Earth it’s probably time for a little bit of a change, but we don’t get it, which is telegraphed by “You Only Live Once,” still one of the strongest songs on the album. By 2011 we get to Angles, a what-if-New-Wave-but-the-Strokes? experiment that I always wanted to work better than it did. That first song, “Machu Picchu,” signals the change right away and is still the only song I listen to consistently off that album. “Tap Out” opens 2013’s Comedown Machine and is a continuation of the departure, but remains a pretty strong pop song though it never became one because the band remembers refused to do any publicity for the album at all. “The Adults Are Talking” feels like the best merger yet of old Strokes and experimental Strokes.

If you’ve been following the timeline at all here, you may have noted that the Strokes’ rise happened at about the time Nebraska football was going to begin its fall from the upper echelon of college football. Is This It was released 18 days before Nebraska would beat Oklahoma in 2001, the Huskers’ last truly big, the-nation-takes-notice win. One month later, Colorado would deliver a blow from which Nebraska is still trying to recover.

The Strokes, meanwhile, were picking up album of year nods all over the place as Nebraska prepared to face Miami in the 2002 Rose Bowl. You might think, given those two divergent trajectories at the beginning, that this is a tale of opposites. But music criticism isn’t the real world, particularly not for one of the most buzzed-about bands of the 21st century. Everything after the rise is a reaction to the incredible origin story, and that comes with critical consequences (that’s “critical” in an “involving criticism” sense).

Turns out, you could have done a pretty good job projecting the fate of Nebraska football in a given season based on the critical reception of the latest Strokes album. Here, I made a graph to show you:

 

For the neatness of this narrative, it would be nice if the 2006 Nebraska team hadn’t been quite so good though beyond that the Strokes fall, at least in the eyes of critics, from next-big-thing to oh-they’re-still-around? status pretty nearly mirrors that of the Huskers’ fate on a national scale. Pretty nearly mirrors my own feelings about those albums, too.

I’d put The New Abnormal higher than Room On Fire, but the critical consensus has it merely equal. Even that represents a return to a level last seen at the start of the 21st Century. The members of the Strokes, the coolest guys in New York City 20 years ago, are approaching 40 now. The garage-rock revival they were supposed to kick start never really found much traction. Guitar-driven music has only continued to recede from the public consciousness. The dive-bar live shows that helped build the buzz can’t even happen at the moment, though that might not matter because the musical underground is readily accessible on SoundCloud now.

Yet, somehow here the Strokes are again. Though it seems like everything has changed since we first saw them, they have created something worthy of consideration and not just because certain people, like me, feel duty bound to check it out. The New Abnormal can exist on its own merits.

That, really, is what Nebraska football is trying to do this year, too. You can’t outrun the past. In fact, it’s why a broad swath of people, all but the most devout, still pay attention. They remember the name and how things used to be, but they’re also busy living their current lives. Clemson fans, for example, probably haven’t thought much about Nebraska since 2008.

The only way to return to the old normal then is to find success in a completely changed context. It’s hard to do and the trick of success and the popularity it brings is that the zero-sum reward is people saying you’re “back.” The Strokes are back. Nebraska’s back.

Such declarations almost always overlook all of the change it took to return to the place people last left you.

But “back” sure beats forgotten.

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