It’s been a funny year for music criticism, and an even stranger one for music at large. Things were off to a solid enough start in quarter one as pop stalwarts like Selena Gomez (and even Halsey) released albums to relatively favorable attention, folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman charmed listeners and big-box indie singers like Soccer Mommy continued to thrive. Meanwhile, country served up one slam dunk after another.
But then, coronavirus happened, and the industry went up in flames. Tours were cancelled en masse, album rollouts were paused or completely reorganized and many major-label artists pushed release dates to summer and beyond. One big-name artist who did the opposite was none other than Fiona Apple, who teased a potential early arrival before dropping it with little warning on April 17, months ahead of schedule, to nearly unanimous praise (including from us here at Paste). Fetch the Bolt Cutters is lightning in a bottle: Made by a woman in isolation, she chose to release it when the rest of the world found themselves in the same boat. So far this year, it’s one of the only albums to receive the kind of universal acclaim that leads to Album of the Year talk. Maybe that’s because so many releases have been delayed, or maybe it’s just the way the cookie crumbled in the first few months of 2020, music-wise.
Another group of major-label rascals who chose to release their album on time as opposed to waiting out some of the COVID-19-induced constraints that have been placed on the music industry is The Strokes. Their latest album, The New Abnormal, arrived with an average amount of fanfare on April 10—average at least in the context of this band’s colorful trajectory. They released Room On Fire in 2003, two years after charming with their debut Is This It, only to find that critics weren’t interested in hearing more of the same. Three more albums followed in its path, each receiving something varying from a yawn to a head-scratch to a slam from critics. All the while, enthusiasm among fans didn’t dwindle. And as the years have passed, each of Is This It’s successors have aged with varying degrees of grace. It wouldn’t be so hard to find critics and fans who appreciate the rowdy energy of Room On Fire (that includes this writer), or even the experimental quirks in Comedown Machine (which is often considered the worst of the bunch). A new Strokes album doesn’t mean what it used to mean. We don’t expect to be blown away, right away.
It’s taken years for some people to get on board with certain Strokes albums, but for some reason, it’s only taken a few weeks for music fans to warm up to The New Abnormal. Upon release, reviews ranged from mostly negative to wholeheartedly lukewarm to a sort of disciplining slap on the wrist—recognizing the moments of perfection here, but also that everything good is ultimately clouded by The Strokes’ own weaknesses (I’d file our own review under this category).
But only a few critics acutely reflected the new narrative that would begin to arise a few weeks later. Perhaps no piling of words sums up The New Abnormal better than “The Strokes Are At Their Imperfect Best On ‘The New Abnormal,’” the headline from veteran rock critic Steven Hyden’s UPROXX review. New Yorker critic (and former Paste contributor) Amanda Petrusich went the way of observant writers covering Fiona Apple in 2020: In her review, she deftly summarized why this album, despite its imperfections (mostly of the lyrical variety), is so topical. It’s literally called The New Abnormal—a fitting description for our new reality—and while its contents aren’t as clairvoyant as, say, those of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, it’s impossible to hear this album outside of the context of 2020. In The Strokes’ case, this clash of a moment and music works heavily in their favor.
Petrusich also points out that Julian Casablancas and co. released their first album following another national crisis: 9/11. As Is This It maybe conjured some nostalgic images of a pre-9/11 NYC, she frames The New Abnormal as a reminder of a city that once was bustling and full of life before a pandemic knocked it to its knees. “The New Abnormal sounds better to me than almost anything else I’ve listened to this spring,” she wrote.
I’m surprised to find I can’t help but agree with her. Upon first listen, The Strokes’ sixth studio album did little to dazzle me beyond reminding me what they sound like after laying low for a couple of years (something we as Strokes fans have of course experienced before). The singles had been impressive, but even the Is This It-honoring joyride that is “Bad Decisions” didn’t seem to flow with the rest of the record. As the isolated month of April went on, however, I found myself listening to The New Abnormal more and more. As I exchanged opinions with fellow Strokes-loving friends, they, too, found themselves coming back to the album again and again. Later in the month, Petrusich tweeted that she found herself loving it “even more” “every day.” Hyden also said the new LP “pays dividends with each listen.”
It’s like the longer we stayed isolated inside, the more friendly this album became. I’d now count it among my favorite post-Is This It releases. From the Angles-esque synth-banger “The Adults Are Talking” to eerily thematic rock jams like “Eternal Summer” and “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” to the characteristically bummed-out “At The Door,” this album recalls so many eras of The Strokes while, as Petrusich implied, simultaneously catching that specific feeling of 2020 doom. Listening to it makes me nostalgic as well as alert. This album’s post-quarantine arrival was crucial to my—and apparently, other critics’—understanding and appreciation of it.
So, maybe, this case isn’t so curious after all. Perhaps The New Abnormal is just another befuddling chapter in the instruction manual on How to Love The Strokes. Maybe we’ll look back in 100 years and realize every single one of their albums was a stroke (no pun intended) of genius. OK, probably not, but I hope we can at least acknowledge that they weren’t a static entity. Every Strokes song may sound the same to an outsider, but, to those who are really along for the ride—no matter how twisty it gets—they couldn’t sound more different from one another. And maybe The New Abnormal has only grown its pool of admirers because the entire world is surviving a pandemic and our standards for art are different, but, then again, music has never been inextricable from its era. Let’s just credit this phenomenon as a product of it all.
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her yapping about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.