Comes a time when every great band wonders if the world’s stopped needing them. And there comes a time when every great man realizes how much he needs the world. For Julian Casablancas, these two moments have collided, like a meteorite crashing into an orphanage. “I’m tired of everyone I know / Of everyone I see / On the street and on TV,” he sings on First Impressions of Earth. “I hate them all, I hate myself for hating.” Maybe he’s talking about the Killers; maybe he’s mad at his live-in sushi prep team. But best hide the cutlery; it’s ride-or-die time.
On 2001’s Is This It, the Strokes danced through the ever-elusive candle flicker of uncut rock’n’roll fun. Their songs were like those silhouette people in the iPod commercials — perfectly defined forms you could fill in with any identity you wanted. So many people rushed to rip off their plucky neonew wave that the band kinda got sick of it. Two years later Room on Fire had some forlorn moments, especially for guys who were supposedly getting laid every two minutes, with Casablancas singing, “You are young, darling, for now but not for long,” as guitarists Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi shrouded his fears in a comedown sunrise.
If the Strokes had been born 30 years ago, they would’ve made four Is This Its and two Room on Fires in three years, embraced Vishnu, and retired in the British countryside to raise sheepdogs. Such a luxury no longer exists in the quick-paced, media-saturated age that helped invent and may lay low the mighty Strokes; now even the less than Strokesian can be burned to itty-bitty rocker crisps under the blog-stoked hot lights of callous scrutiny. Some cultural critics have called this process “the acceleration of culture.” But for Casablancas, who reportedly gave up drinking recently, the source of deep self-reflection might be a deceleration of the liver.
First Impressions is an olympiad of self-help chin-ups: “My feelings are more important than yours,” “I don’t write better when I’m stuck in the ground,” “Don’t be a coconut, God is trying to talk to you.” This exceeding introspection, combined with a sound that further abandons brittle ’80s giddiness for studio-wonk man rock, may incur accusations of terminal flameout.
That isn’t fair. Jules’ croon remains one of the most beautiful messes in contemporary music, variously channeling Tom Verlaine, Barry Manilow, Shane MacGowan, Vincent Price, and the Sid Vicious of “My Way,” often within the same vowel, as if administering a wildly cathartic home colonic for his soul. Odes to fading youth like “Killing Lies” and “15 Minutes” can’t help but moisten the gimlet eye.
Despite hammy action like the “Peter Gunn” bass line that anchors the single “Juicebox,” the boys holding the instruments do their best to lift up their pal, like sorority girls holding a sister’s hair while she revisits last night’s Jell-O shots. On the Stones-biting “You Only Live Once” and the glossy bitchfest “On the Other Side,” the rhythm section of drummer Fabrizio Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture prove themselves the grand old men of the secondhand skinny-tie get-down, and guitarists Valensi and Hammond remain ace classic-rock cheese graters.
Bubbly album closer “Red Light” suggests the Strokes may withstand their career quakes. Either that or Julian will one day become the NY Rock version of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, cursing his enemies as he tosses his old denim jackets into the fireplace. The most deeply felt song on First Impressions is the one that sounds least like the Strokes. On “Ask Me Anything,” Casablancas bites the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs for a sweeping cello and synth soliloquy. “We could drag it out, but that’s for other bands to do / I’ve got nothing to saaaay.” It’s quite lovely, despite his forgetting that no one ever needed the Strokes to say anything. Merely existing was more than enough, as long as they didn’t mind being just what we needed. First Impressions may not be the best Strokes album, but damn if it doesn’t feel like the last.