November 3, 2003

Shortcut: The Strokes

So yeah. The Strokes are back, and now that they've saved rock'n'roll once already, they can go on to new tasks. Challenged with the choice between becoming mature and continuing to work on their immaturity, they have chosen to refine the blasé fuck you attitude that commanded Is This It. (Recall its opening: "Can't you see I'm trying, I don't even like it/I just lie to get to your apartment.") In so doing, they have provided us now with nothing less than an ethics of contemporary dating—a user's guide, as it were, for how to deal with women who are as blasé as they are.

Surprisingly, Room on Fire exchanges the generally elusive "you" of the average pop song with a unified subject of attention. There is, that is, a coherent narrative to the eleven songs that make up their new, 32-minute-short dispensation. True, the details of that story are not much more intricate, but the general thrust is this: he wants her, but she plays hard-to-get (track 1); he gives her a contact for a drug dealer (2); now the odds are reversed: she wants him, but he plays it cool (3); over time, he reconsiders his stance and invites her over for a night of romping (4), but he quickly gets sick of her and decides to take a break (5); she is crushed, and he exults in his Nietzschean independence of the spirit (6 - aptly this song, which lies at the arithmetic mean of the album, is titled "Between Love & Hate"); he takes time to reflect on their relationship but is too cool to be disturbed by the loss of commitment and authentic love in late modernity (7); he still doesn't want to get back together, and reminds her that she is still young (8); she can't get over him, but he is now genuinely sick of her and renounces all responsibility for the failure of their affair (9); he engages in political speculation and, predictably, becomes unintelligible (10); at the end, everything cheerfully returns to the beginning: he goes on the prowl again, now mindful of the possibility of failure (11).

Julian Casablancas sings, "The end has no end" in track 10. The contemporary story of sexual excitement and subsequent failure is not essentially different from that of earlier generations, and now that the Strokes have come full circle, they can afford a more distanced attitude to their own cynicism. No wonder then that they venture into some gleeful 80s poppishness (classics like "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" come to mind when listening to "12:51" and "I Can't Win"). On the downside, the Strokes are still genuinely terrible with a slow tempo ("Under Control"), and Julian Casablancas still hasn't taken any singing lessons (listen to the end of "Automatic Stop"). But there are some pretty good songs on this album, the band's style has become more diversified, and who knows, perhaps they even have an important message to communicate.