Sometimes, when the members of a band are barely hanging by a thread to keep the group going, there is a unique tension that creates surprisingly likable artifacts: The Beatles’ White Album, The Clash’s Combat Rock, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, et al. They all remain a salvage yard of scraps somehow pieced together to form a coherent whole, in spite of immensely trying circumstances surrounding their creation. Occasionally it works, but in cases like Angles, sometimes success keeps a group together despite themselves.
The fourth album by The Strokes is a spotty hodgepodge of loosely focused ideas that sounds like the middling result of songwriting by committee. Unlike their first two full-lengths, it’s not the music made by friends spending endless hours working and playing together. Their somewhat unlikely return is a confusing mix of emotions weighed down by myriad baggage accumulated from a decade of heavy touring, attempts to escape the shadow of their debut album, individual projects, strained relationships, and personal growth. It’s not that it’s exactly a bad album, but rather, it’s a depressing one. There’s a certain passive-aggressiveness to the proceedings that makes most of its musical ideas sound tentative and lacking the brash confidence that’s long been the band’s hallmark.
The tension within the group has been widely publicized (also see here and here). Following their excellent yet strangely underrated 2006 album First Impressions of Earth (RCA/Sony Music) and subsequent touring, the band splintered off to pursue various side projects and personal pursuits. Front-man and songwriter for the bulk of the band’s earlier material, Julian Casablancas seemed to wait patiently on the sidelines for several years for the band to reconvene before opting for a solo endeavor of his own, after initial writing for the new album fell apart. For a while, it seemed as though the band was finished permanently. But, when Casablancas’ tour behind his solo album, Phrazes For the Young (RCA/Song Music, 2009), ended in commercial failure, others’ side projects faltered, guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. emerged fresh from rehab, and all other band members crawled back to the commercial comfort of The Strokes. By this point, it seems as though they were all squeezed out by the elephant in the room.
Angles bears a hollow sadness and palpable detachment that, at times, each musician seems to attempt to gloss over with impressive flourishes. Yet, it sounds phoned in. And, perhaps most tellingly, all of Julian Casablancas’ vocals were, figuratively, phoned in – opting to record his vocal parts separate from the band with most communication occurring via email. Throughout, his vocals sound patched in over the music, detached and disjointed. It’s as if the lo-fi Julian of earlier recordings was slapped over the top of a glossy sounding band. The music tends to rely on atavistic gimmickry (such as adopting 1980s synth-pop cliches), supplanting substance rather than giving the music a point of context as they had with the late-1970s stylings of their debut. Where the latter made the aesthetic choice to frame the album’s songs with a gritty lo-fi lens in order to heighten the band’s iconoclasm within the major label world of that era, Angles sounds almost entirely written and recorded to mimic an album from the mid-1980s with little point to it. Considering how Julian’s solo album was a synth-laden, musically dense work, one can’t help wonder if the band were attempting to follow previous guidelines from the singer with much more derivative results. At times, you can sense an odd feeling of the band attempting to appease their singer, like abandoned sons yearning to please a distant and difficult father.
The Strokes’ first three albums were a seamless progression of ideas. Lyrically, Casablancas was always clever with wordplay, but really hit his stride on First Impressions and then superseded himself on Phrazes For the Young (lyrics are printed on both The Strokes web site and Julian’s web site). So, the comparatively vacuous and uninspired lyrics of Angles seem to be just another passive attempt at self-sabotage. His ambivalence regarding the band in interviews seems heightened by his apparent frustration at the failure of his solo career and having to go back to the shackles of the group he’d likely written off. The irony is that Casablancas’ solo album probably would’ve been better with the musicians of The Strokes playing the songs.
Angles opens with a strange ascending whirring noise that’s either a nod to the winding tape sound that kicks off their debut album or just a “safe” familiar way for them to start an album. “Machu Picchu”: the song’s title is seemingly a reference to the ruins of the ancient Incan temple, a marvel of early architecture whose purpose remains a mystery. The song itself sounds like an abandoned relic from Men At Work’s retrofitted reggae pop. Then, the chorus throws in a strange, seeming nod to Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something“. Like its namesake, “Machu Picchu” is an unfinished ruin.
The album’s lead single and strongest tune, “Under Cover of Darkness,” is lyrically incongruous, while musically a return to the band’s upbeat garage-pop, flecked with hints of the flair that guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. previously reigned in on earlier recordings. Although the song is very catchy, it sounds like a safe move, with each member expanding slightly on the musical ideas of their well-worn hits – sort of like a “what I wished I’d played on the original” version of “Last Night.”
There are resplendent moments, however, making Angles all the more complicated. Some of the guitar work is their most aggressive and inventive. “Call Me Back” and “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight” show considerable maturity and prowess, featuring more delicate songwriting than has been heard from them heretofore. But, compared to Casablancas’ Phrazes For the Young (as what likely would’ve comprised much of The Strokes’ fourth album), Angles is a weak approximation of ideas already better realized. The most difficult aspects are songs like “Two Kinds of Happiness” – rendered toothless and gimmicky by the gated reverb on the snare drum (the hallmark “puhhhhhh” drum sound of 1980s pop) and similar contemporary cliches in song structure. The robotic, monotone chants throughout “You’re So Right” sound less like an artful affectation and more like utter disdain for the song and band itself. Likewise, “Games” sounds almost as icy as the band’s inner dialogue. As the music efficiently echoes mid-1980s Duran Duran, Julian sings repeatedly, “living in an empty world,” as if mocking the song’s New Wave cliches. It all sounds empty and uninspired. It seems as though Angles is a half-hearted olive branch extended between estranged members rather than the end result of a focused reconciliation. To paraphrase words from the band’s debut: alone they stand, together they fall apart.