The blackest sheep of The Strokes’ discography turns 10.
“I’m not even sure we’re going to make a fourth album at this point.” – Nick Valensi [c. 2009]
“I understand what people want… but things have changed.” – Julian Casablancas [NME, February 2011]
“I won’t do the next album we make like this. No way. It was awful– just awful… Seventy-five percent of this album felt like it was done together and the rest of it was left hanging, like some of us were picking up the scraps and trying to finish a puzzle together.” – Nick Valensi [Pitchfork, March 2011]
“I want Thin Lizzy-style, kung-fu rock with cool 80s melodies… but there’s only a 20% chance it’ll end up being that.” – Julian Casablancas [The Guardian, November 2009]
“I feel like we have a better album in us, and it’s going to come out soon.” – Nick Valensi [Pitchfork, March 2011]
“Asked if he likes the finished album, [Julian] takes a long pause. ‘I mean… yes… It’s a tough question because I think the whole point was that I was going to let things go so there’s a bunch of stuff [on the record] I wouldn’t have done.’” – Julian Casablancas [Pitchfork, March 2011]
This was the energy being put out into the world ahead of The Strokes’ fourth album, Angles, which turns 10 today. Interview upon interview and news story upon news story of the band actively talking down the quality of their big comeback after five years away in the wilderness. Considering the fact that landmark debut Is This It was preparing to turn 10 a few months later and would inevitably end up overshadowing Angles with unfair and likely unfavourable comparisons no matter how good the album may have been, that’s certainly one way to try and manage expectations. In the decade since its release, they haven’t exactly reversed course. Cuts from the album have only been played live once since 2016 – “Machu Picchu” in late 2019 at, fittingly, Peru – and the big announcement of the band’s official reactivation on NYE 2019 involved Julian insisting on-stage that “the 2010s, whatever the fuck they’re called, we took ‘em off,” trying his best to wipe Angles and follow-up Comedown Machine off the record books in the face of crowds really desperately wanting to hear something from Angles.
So, it’s no secret that the band does not think very highly of their fourth LP. Much of that can likely be attributed to, surprise surprise, their perpetually being on the verge of total band collapse during the album’s extremely protracted gestation. Equally contentious third album First Impressions of Earth was supposed to be the one which finally broke The Strokes through to the big time, to give them the sales of a Kings of Leon to go along with their banked indie critical clout. It got big glossy MTV-ready videos, it got a big loud and heavily-compressed production job from veteran pop-rock producer David Kahne, it got a big bloated tracklist… then it came out and only slightly raised the band’s glass ceiling instead of busting through it. Worse, critics and long-time fans were bitterly divided over the results which demoralised band leader Julian. Journalist Marc Spitz noted in Meet Me in the Bathroom:
“He seemed like he was making music that he was really proud of. But nobody liked that record. So basically what Julian likes is what Julian likes, and what everyone else thinks is great makes him miserable.”
The gruelling tour following didn’t help; journalist Austin Scaggs also recalled in Meet Me his efforts to document their run of South America shows only to witness a band “crumbling right in front of my eyes.” Nick would term those issues as “typical rock-band bullshit.” Guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr.’s heroin addiction became actively crippling, Julian got sober and happily engaged to the band’s long-time assistant manager Juliet Joslin which saw him move out on his own after years living with one band member or another, and solo records. So many solo records. Nick was the one band member who didn’t put out a solo or side-project during those five years and seemed truly resentful of the others doing so. “I’m of the opinion that you’re in a band and that’s what you do… If you’re playing material that you haven’t even shown to your main band and you’re just sort of keeping it for yourself, I’m not a big fan of that.” (He would finally do so in late 2013.)
When they finally got back together in 2009, things weren’t much better. In an effort to appease his bandmates, the notoriously perfectionist control freak dictator Julian, who had penned effectively every single note of those first two records right down to the guitar solos with only minor input from the other members, tried to take a more hands-off approach this time around. Whilst every one of the 18 songs worked on over the next two years was written together during and left fundamentally unchanged from initial live demo sessions, Julian infamously recused himself from the actual recording process in an effort to inspire the others to “force the initiative.” Effectively leaving the other band members to write most of the music whilst he only sent vocal tracks and often-vague notes on what else to do via email. (That important distinction between the writing and recording sessions came years later whilst Julian was being interviewed for the first Voidz album; he was not happy about it becoming a thing.)
Initial sessions with super-producer Joe Chiccarelli – ones done without Julian in any capacity; he was still on tour for his solo record – ran for ten seven-day weeks and were almost completely scrapped, save for closer “Life is Simple in the Moonlight,” due to the band disliking Chiccarelli’s “hands on” direction when it came to a “big” uniform sound. Band engineer Gus Oberg effectively took over as lead producer and started from near-enough scratch at Albert’s house. Even then, progress was torturous. Albert was effectively forced into rehab one last time mid-recording following another bad breakup (this time it thankfully stuck). Recording was often demoralising as Nick detailed many sessions where it would just be him and Oberg in the studio. And the band’s desire to try “everything” led to every song being tracked dozens of times, overdubs upon overdubs, and “thousands and thousands” of Gigabytes of recordings that would often be pulled back up months down the line. Then, when it was finally finished, everyone would go and candidly bitch about the project in the media. Julian’s commentary on “Metabolism” for a track-by-track article in the NME went thusly…
“I’ve had that one for a while. I had something completely different in mind at the outset to what it is. It became something else entirely, but I’m… fine with it as it is now.”
Not exactly inspiring stuff. And I know I’ve spent a long time talking about the band history and the perception of the band rather than the music on Angles itself, but this is by necessity because The Strokes were always just as much about the image of The Strokes as they were the impeccable rock songs they often played. At the turn of the millennium where most mainstream rock music was a choice between the pleasantly sleepy charisma-vacuums of post-Britpop and the bro-ham try-hard “I don’t give a fuck!” bell-ends of nu-metal and post-grunge, The Strokes represented a breath of fresh air. They were fun, wild, cool, effortless. It truly looked like they didn’t give a fuck, that all they wanted to do was get on stage to sharply blast out some deceptively tricksy garage rock then slink off to get drunk and shag each other’s girls. That was the narrative the music press successfully pushed, that manager Ryan Gentles sold, and that the band didn’t care enough to rebel against; the kind of “last gang in town” vibe which makes the press and a band’s cult cream their pants at the concept. And, crucially, the music of those first two albums reflected that, as well as just being bangers after bangers.
So, when that perception was so utterly demolished by the press cycle for Angles, one blasted almost wall-to-wall with declarations about how miserable everybody was when making it… that’s a big deal. And it’s a big deal because the music really does reflect it. Even if you’d heard none of that, the ten tracks which make up Angles absolutely feel like the product of a protracted directionless struggle, simultaneously over-thought and under-realised. Pitchfork’s review at the time damningly ended its second paragraph by describing the record as “not a roaring comeback as much as a glorified spit-balling session” and they’re not exactly wrong. It’s clear that the entire band recognised they needed to move on from the sounds which brought them to the party, and that the maximalist mid-00s crunch of First Impressions didn’t work as intended, but nobody seemed to have settled on what that new direction should be besides vague gesturing towards the 80s. Resultantly deciding on trying anything once regardless of whether that’d be the best idea.
Some of these spitballs sorta work. “Games” dives in full-force on the synthwave aesthetics with a chilly, metallic, spacey groove which eventually comes together in the outro once a curiously EQ’d guitar cuts in to blare out the melody. “Gratisfaction,” meanwhile, has absolutely no right to slap as hard as it does; aims for Thin Lizzy, overshoots and hits Toy Story Randy Newman, yet somehow is still a bouncy and irresistible slice of fun during a second-half which can be quite dour. Some of those spitballs absolutely don’t. “Metabolism” is a truly ugly attempt at condensed prog with Julian’s worst vocals on the record, whilst “You’re So Right” so much resembles an unfinished sketch that its two-and-a-half-minutes feel interminably longer. And some of those spitballs are so close to working but frustratingly fall short due to over-tinkering. I actually rather like “Call Me Back,” a significantly better version of the beatless ballad previously tried on “Ask Me Anything,” but this delicate ballad is bewilderingly mixed extremely loudly and extremely flatly as to be kinda exhausting on the wrong hardware.
Angles severely suffers from a lack of cohesion, where it’s obvious that nobody is on the same page at any point (even the production quality whiplashes massively between tracks), and a massive gulf separating the album’s best moments from its worst. Even more so than the overlong First Impressions, you can accuse The Strokes of trying way too hard – there are friggin’ honest-to-god bongos on the chorus of “Machu Picchu” – in a manner which betrays a band divided with their hearts not always in it. Gentles would later insist that “they never talked about not making another record,” but it’s really hard not to doubt that assertion when, of the 18 songs written for the record, one of the ten that made it was “Metabolism.” Would a band who wanted to make a fourth record, rather than being obligated to make a fourth record thanks to their five-album contract, have really allowed “You’re So Right” to make the cut? Room on Fire is a full two minutes shorter than Angles and yet that record still feels significantly more satisfying once it’s finished, rather than having its closer fade out of view and leaving a mild sensation of (pardon the hack pun) “is that it?”
And yet… I do still really dig Angles for the most part. I dig it enough that, whilst it’s never once troubled the upper-echelons of my own power-rankings, I’ve also never once ranked it as the band’s worst album. I dig it enough to keep pulling a good half of its tracklist out into regular rotation. And I dig it enough that my continued response to the band’s efforts at scrubbing it from their canon, in interviews and on setlists when live shows were still a thing, is genuine disappointment.
Some of that is thanks to nostalgia. Angles was my first new Strokes album, where I was there as a fan fully aware of them for the entire release cycle and bolting to the CD aisle of my local ASDA on release day – I’d been introduced to them thanks to “Reptilia”’s inclusion in Rock Band so I was a real late-bloomer. Some of that is because I have somewhat of a soft-spot for contentious messes that popular opinion turns harshly on despite the records in question rarely being the outright disasters they’re often pegged as. I’m the person who rides hard for Everything Now, Notes on a Conditional Form, Humanz, The Center Won’t Hold, or maybe you’d just already inferred my propensity for fractious albums made by bands on the brink of collapse from the stuff I’ve chosen to do throwbacks on over the years. Some of that is due to the benefit of hindsight. Fifth album Comedown Machine, released almost exactly two years later, is one which builds upon the stronger foundations of Angles to end up their third-best record, and that definitely provides some leeway to Angles’ greater missteps.
Mainly, though, it comes down to the same simple fact it always has with The Strokes. For all the hype, for all the posturing, and for all of the hubbub made over their image… none of it would have mattered a lick or lasted a month if the songs weren’t any good. And a lot of the songs here are really bloody good. Not just the more traditionally Strokes-y ones, either, although they are shining highlights. In particular, lead single “Under Cover of Darkness” is pure uncut Strokes with the interlocking dual guitar-work, indie dancefloor bounce of the tightknit rhythm section by Fabrizio Moretti and Nikolai Fraiture, and instantly catchy chorus melody from a seemingly-rejuvenated Julian – even when his lyrics falter on this album, his voice largely sounds significantly better than it did on First Impressions. But it also has an 80s power-pop snap lacking from those earlier songs and the added production embellishments bring in proper vocal harmonies for the first time which add so much to the overall texture; it feels like the ideal version of a radio-ready Strokes jam.
In fact, I’d even go so far as to claim that Angles’ opening salvo, something that the band has always excelled at even on their weaker records, might be their best behind Room on Fire’s. I may have clowned on the chorus bongos and the line “wearing a jacket made of meat” was dated even on release, but “Machu Picchu”’s groove is tight as hell and there’s an absolutely killer bridge which set up real estate in my brain on release day and hasn’t relinquished that land since. The aforementioned “Under Cover” remains the band’s best single since “You Only Live Once” and, in the spiciest of hot takes, I would honestly put “Two Kinds of Happiness” in my personal Top 10 Strokes Songs. Even with the sonics alternating between 80s drivetime AM pop rock like later The Cars or Tom Petty for the verses and the sky-fairing sweep of classic U2 for the chorus, it still has the classic Strokes ‘build up, take off, soar, clumsily yet coolly start over’ structure that is just masterfully pulled off here. When Nick and Albert’s guitars go ballistically electric in the post-chorus, and then alternate pinging around in the bridge before the very end… man, I still lose my shit like it’s 2011!
Proceedings only sporadically reach those initial heights again, but they are reached. “Taken for a Fool” has the album’s best chorus and pulls the “12:51” trick of treating the lead guitar so heavily that it starts to resemble a different instrument altogether, here a saxophone. “Gratisfaction” has already been discussed, and the band were right to rescue that original Joe Chiccarelli take of “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” from the aborted sessions. Aside from “Under Cover,” it’s (ironically) the one time that everybody sounds audibly relaxed and comfortable with themselves, where the creation sounds just right and effortless and, resultantly, extremely easy to love. And, honestly, even the outright misses are at least interesting and noteworthy rather than outright boring, so there’s some value in those to the likes of me.
This past Sunday, The Strokes took home their first ever Grammy when The New Abnormal won Best Rock Album. The announcement was hilariously awkward and rather endearing, as they cursed up a storm whilst spraying beers all over each other in celebration amid technical difficulties. Most notable of all, however, was how happy the three members on-camera looked to be in each other’s presence. That’s been the general vibe they’ve given off throughout all of their current pandemic-afflicted era; in interviews, in semi-chaotic podcast Zoom calls, and even on an album that’s their slowest and vibe-iest yet. For the first time in a long, long time, The Strokes seem happy to be working together, rather than begrudgingly tolerating the day job that lets them go off to make the music they actually want to create. That didn’t seem to be something achievable even just three years ago, and yet it’s happened.
So, I get why they want to just pretend that Angles doesn’t exist. It’s clearly a painful time in every member’s history which took a lot to work through, one that is still yet to get the proper re-evaluation Room on Fire and First Impressions of Earth did in the eyes of most critics, so I get the inclination for them to consider it all unsalvageable and move on. And I’m really glad they’re happy now. But, for all of its messiness and audible strain and occasional lapses into dogshittery, the Strokes’ story is not complete without Angles. Many of its best ideas would be iterated, revised and expanded upon with subsequent albums, both within The Strokes and the members’ various side gigs. There are some of the band’s very best songs buried within the misfires that deserve re-airing. And, yeah, I cannot discount the nostalgic weight to it being my first new Strokes album; I’m sure many others can’t either.
They would make that “better album” which was in them and they would do it soon. But they couldn’t have made it without Angles.
Callie Petch is just tryin’ to find a mountain they can climb.