Who would have ever thought a new Strokes album would arrive with fearful anticipation, similar to releases from dinosaur rock legends stretching their golden legacies a little too far? Just 10 years ago, these five unshaven, denim-laden, hot-shit New York boys became the embodiment of everything great and dirty and long-forgotten about rock music with their debut album “Is This It?,” an overnight sensation that still holds up as one of the decade’s very best releases. In fact, The Strokes just might be the last rock band to define coolness for an entire generation — they were the gap between the alt-rock dominance of the ’90s and the future of guitar-less greats that has now greeted us.
But, like just about any great band, The Strokes can barely function. In the decade since “Is This It?,” The Strokes have spent half that time fighting, on hiatus, pursuing curious solo projects (like frontman Julian Casablancas’ synth-pop “Phrazes for the Young”) and wallowing in the cold reception of their last effort, “First Impressions of Earth.”
The new album, “Angles,” is reportedly titled for its collaborative nature, which allowed the five members to actually create as a group for the first time. The benefit of this is that this album actually exists right now.
Meanwhile, the band also sounds completely reserved for the first time, like they’d rather play nice than really bounce off each other. At the very least, “Angles” doesn’t at all resemble the all-out mess it easily could have been. Instead, it just kind of hovers between a retreat to the band’s beloved early sound and a venture into stylistic whims. Here, The Strokes aren’t making a comeback, or boldly reimagining themselves, so much as just finding their footing again.
The album kicks off with “Machu Picchu,” the least promising start fans would expect after a five-year wait. It opens with a fluttering, tropical guitar strum, and gets even weirder when Casablancas kicks in and basically morphs the song into a not-so-groovy New Wave attempt. Fortunately, nostalgia is right around the corner: The sunny first single “Under Cover of Darkness,” which restored the hope of many uncertain fans, comes next. That song, along with the superb “Taken for a Fool,” most closely resembles the band at the peak of their classic powers.
But as for songs that actually recapture the easy-going greatness of this band, even the best moments of “Angles” hardly do the trick. The band has scaled back to their barebones template: 10 songs, only one over four minutes long, all of them totaling just over half an hour. Yet, this time, the band doesn’t blow through the song selection — they stumble through it, haphazardly alternating lightweight pleasures and awkward experiments.
About half of “Angles” makes you wonder just how much range these guys really have outside of their signature sound. There’s moments that dip into prog (“You’re So Right”), electro-pop (“Games”) and sad, nimble minimalism (“Call Me Back”), and not one sounds more energized than a half-hearted stab at something different. Things are much nicer when the band falls back on simple pleasures, like brash, guitar-dueling “Metabolism” and the bubblegum blast “Gratification,” which finds these ’70s-style guys dipping back into ’50s pop.
All of this culminates in “Life is Simple in the Moonlight,” the finale that finds the band, uncharacteristically, just waving goodbye and stepping out the door.
“Angles” keeps The Strokes afloat without really re-establishing them. It does, at least, prove that these guys are still capable of some fun, even fantastic songs. What’s still unclear, though, is whether or not there’s still true vitality in these guys. They’re clearly capable of putting out plenty of decent, mostly enjoyable albums like this one. What’s missing, though, is that magical, effortless group dynamic that yielded their best work — and that’s something that, evidently, even direct collaboration can’t help reignite.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.