First Impressions of Earth
By Matt Stephens | 18 January 2006
My review comes a couple weeks after the release of this record, and will probably be one of the last to be published, so let me paraphrase what seems to be the consensus of most rock journalists and fans upon hearing First Impressions of Earth: The Strokes were a dud. The early 21st century’s Great White Hope, the band that was to make scuzzy, retrofied rock ‘n roll commercially viable once again, the guys that, as NME would have had us believe at least, were certified legends before they’d even released their debut album. They’ve apparently fizzled, by turns, into self-parody, wanky experimentation, crass Clear Channel-baiting, and total irrelevance.
Well, hold on now. Loathe as I am to claim much sympathy for any touring rock band, let alone one from such a comfortable background who’s had so much success (critically, commercially, with Drew Barrymore and, I can only assume, untold hundreds of hysterical British schoolgirls) so quickly, The Strokes have been given a raw deal. Is This It was great, to be sure, but the ensuing cross-hemispherical orgasm that received it made it out to be more than it was: namely, a tight, brilliantly-written collection of guitar pop songs about the joys of drinking, staying out till 6am, waking up in the beds of strangers, living in New York City and playing tight, brilliantly-written guitar pop songs. We made them into saviours when all they wanted to do was play us some stolen Television riffs and get us into bed.
What people also tend to forget is that, quite curiously, The Strokes (at least on this side of the Atlantic) initially hit the mainstream in the weeks following 9/11. It’s interesting that a band with so very little new to say, and so few songs about anything but debauchery and angst, managed to be the first band of the decade that mainstream and indie fans seemed to love in equal doses. It was the time I fell in love with them as well: listening to Is This It now still evokes the feeling of that very tense autumn, when horrifying and inexplicable world events quickly politicized me at the same time as the changing tides at my high school gave me my first tastes of the kind of sinful lifestyle Julian Casablancas drawled on about so coyly. The half-dozen or so friends I had at the time were all experiencing the same confusing emotions, and Is This It was a shared soundtrack for all of us – we’d yet to hear The Velvet Underground and Nico or Slanted and Enchanted, so it was all new to us, and it was hard to imagine another record ever mattering quite as much.
Of course, the lukewarm reception to 2003’s Room on Fire invariably brought the band back to earth. While it was probably the equal of its predecessor on a song-for-song basis, many accused the band of treading water (Gordon Raphael’s muted and kinda monotonous production stayed untouched, that ugly bassist still didn’t do anything but hit the tonic in either quarter or eighth notes, “Hard to Explain” and “Meet Me in the Bathroom” were for all intents and purposes the exact same song), and it didn’t meet with the globe-straddling commercial frenzy so many had anticipated for them. It was as clear to the band, I’m sure, as it was to anyone who paid attention to them: if The Strokes were to stay vital, they would have to move forward.
And boy, did they ever try. It’s obvious from its prolonged gestation period, as well as its clearly meticulous arrangements, that First Impressions of Earth was a labour of love from Casablancas and co. — a very self-conscious attempt to step away from the three-minutes-and-out pop ecstasy of their first two records and into more intense, diverse and high-minded territory. Some of it works, more of it doesn’t, but all of it bears the mark of talented musicians trying to reinvent themselves without much of an idea of how to do so.
It begins very promisingly. Opener “You Only Live Once” is vintage Strokes; the band swaggers over Julian’s seductively detached coos and stutters as if the song was arranged by a riff-generating cyborg, and the lyrics delight in the kind of plainspoken malaise that Casablancas does pretty well (“29 different attributes and only 7 that you like”). Things start to get strange with first single “Juicebox,” a half-brilliant oddity that careens from its urgent bass hook to ominous call-and-response verses, Cobain-worthy hollering, to the almost-impassioned declaration of “you’re so cold!” at the peak of the chorus. Much like the album itself, it’s beguiling to listen to the first time, with rapidly shifting sections and textures that seem to promise a revelatory climax that’s never really delivered.
Pretty much all of the songs on the first half are as good or at least as intriguing. “Razorblade,” buoyed by a brilliant lead guitar line, coyly nicks its chorus melody from Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” and “Heart in a Cage” nails the heavy metal inflections the band fucks up later on. Despite its despondent lyrical content (and being about a minute too long), “On the Other Side” is one of the album’s catchier songs, with Jules making what sounds like suicidal deliberations positively singalong-worthy.
It’s not until “Vision of Division” and “Ask Me Anything” that things start to get really weird. On the first, the galloping metal rhythms of “Heart in a Cage” are pushed even further, with the band incorporating an almost Pixies-like soft verse/loud chorus dynamic which ends up with Jules screaming even louder than he does in “Juicebox.” The real jaw-dropper, and the most surprising single moment on the album, comes with the guitar solo that begins at the 1:47 mark which, depending on who you are and what mood you’re in at the given time you hear it, is either a work of Eastern-tinged speed punk genius or the worst crime ever committed on a helpless Fender Strat. “Ask Me Anything” is at least as surprising, with Casablancas singing some of his most cheerless and confessional lyrics accompanied only by a lone synth. Julian sings the chorus of “I’ve got nothing to say” like a grimly drunken mantra, and the garbled metaphors and non-sequitors of the verses (“Harmless children / We named our soldiers after you / Don’t be a coconut / God is trying to talk to you”) serve only to back up his claim. It works for me because it seems like the only song here that wasn’t edited or re-arranged to the point of inertia, and coming from a narrator as frequently stoic as Casablancas, its honesty is quite affecting.
Indeed, the album’s first half seems to tease you like a beautiful but moody girl who’s ready to sleep with you one moment, scream at you the next, then completely ignore you, sleep with all your friends but then cry on your shoulder begging for forgiveness when you try to leave her. If the second half could up the songwriting ante, or at least remain as baffling, we’d have an album-of-the-year contender on our hands. Unfortunately, First Impressions of Earth takes a steep drop in quality after “Ask Me Anything” and never finds its way again. I’ve listened to them at least a dozen times each, but “Electricityscape” still doesn’t sound anything but cheesy, “Evening Sun” is still disjointed and joyless, and “15 Minutes”/“Fear of Sleep” are so dull they’re barely worth releasing as B-sides. While there are redeeming qualities in “Killing Lies,”“Ize of the World” and particularly closer “Red Light,” they’re still not good enough to compete with the best of the first half (let alone the worst of the band’s first two records), and their flaws are nowhere near as fascinating. For most it will probably be a struggle to get into the double digits when trying to sit through the album the whole way through, and for a band that packed its first two albums together so neatly, this kind of shoddy editing is probably FIoE’s most damning mistake.
Still, despite the many things that frustrate me about this record, I still find myself rooting for The Strokes, and hoping that at some point all of the parts of it that I find disjointed, stuffy and aimless will one day just click, forcing me to write some frenzied, sycophantic re-review acknowledging that The Strokes are still the saviours of rock and still sound as exciting as they did in 2001. Because, after all, when you’re attacked on your first album for sounding too much like other bands, and then you’re attacked on your second album for sounding too much like yourselves, it’s probably hard to hear everybody complaining that your third album sounds too different and weird. Regardless of where they choose to go from here, record number four (if there is one) will be their day of reckoning, and I hope that if they decide to keep evolving, they put more care into how they go about it.