Room on Fire
We're not those kids sitting on the couch. We're the choice of a new generation and we've got slummin' that pays. Burn out? Fade away? You can't put your arms around a mem-o-ray. So don't try. In a fallen world of cynical succubi--we suck, you buy--the Strokes are the accidental ideal, the little candle that makes the bottles glow when you're "out at night to do the strand" in Nada Surf's "Happy Kid," easily the best song ever about being in the Strokes. Nada Surf, as you probably can't recall (and why should you when their ex-girlfriends can't?) were that band who kinda sounded like Weezer in the late mid-'90s who now kinda sound like Coldplay in the early mid-'00s. Another alt-rock chimera allowed to continue sort-of-not-dying in the back of the soup line that is the post-Strokes Rock Is Back New Deal. Motto: A Clinic on every block, ya ride or die, ya dutty rock.
And don't hate them 'cuz they're dutty-faux, resistance will only make the Strokes more powerful. I've tried, oh, how I've tried, until my old sorority sister Howard Dean called up: Dude, why piss on someone's sundress? Let the kids have their fun. Easy enough for one as giving as our beloved El Presidente, but it doesn't detract from the fact that the Strokes are easy not to like even if they're impossible to resist. As it says right on the side of the 767 that Julian's dad bought the guys after their first record went platinum, "There's five of us and we're not the Beatles"--or the Beasties or Nirvana or the 1910 Fruitgum Company or any other community-reifying version of rock utopianism you care to name. And that's not just 'cuz they're so pretty and they don't care or 'cuz every Friday night you'll ever have can't equal one of their Tuesday mornings coming down.
It's because they're not altogether there. The Strokes seem constructed. Not in the hype sense or the media sense, but in purely formal terms. It starts with the disconnect between Julian's detached over-the-phone vocals and the studied feel of their seemingly inspired sloppiness. I don't imagine these songs being written so much as cobbled together long after whatever inspiration led idea-guy Julian to play something to music-guy Nick who translated it to other-guys Fab, Vladimir, and Albert. I imagine Julian sitting alone in his apartment, slunk over his laptop, ProTooling together bass parts, pasting in keyboard lines to make the guitars sound more like synths (or vice versa), rerecording Nick's solos (to make them sound sloppier, natch), snapping together sloppy ol' Fabrizio's drum parts until he sounds like a Casio program. (It's ironic that the "organic" part in the Strokes-Christina bootleg, "A Stroke of Genius," wasn't Xtina's vocal but "Hard to Explain"'s beat, which they continue to insist was not generated on a drum machine.) This isn't bad for any ontological reason; it isn't bad for any reason at all. In fact, it brilliantly replicated the punk-to-synth-pop moment (circa 1979-1981) they reinvent. But it does make it hard to feel much communal warmth from a band whose whole thing is supposed to be how they all live together and shag the same birds and trade clothes and fly around doing battle with Creed on the surface of the sun.
They do all that, of course, it's just that we wouldn't know it from the music, and since that's all we have to work with, the best way to fuck with the Strokes is to choose your own rock and roll fantasy for them. This is how Julian would want it anyway. Specious comparisons to Television (more like the Pyschedelic Furs) and Lou Reed (and the Cars) notwithstanding, this is obviously a guy who learned rock history watching VH-1 while making out with his governess. This is what's liberating about Is This It and the new, equally shit-hot-wonderful Room on Fire (RCA). The coolest bands of the '90s were scholars, reflections of the way life used to be refracted through a Ph.D. The Strokes sound like they slept through class and woke up underneath the podium on graduation day, which makes them a) kinda dumb and b) kinda naive and c) kinda perfect for the post-everything era we're currently slogging through while we wait for the end of the world.
So what's the fantasy on Room on Fire? Well, here's where the New York rock comparisons do kinda come in. Julian is the Sunday Boy, arriving 25 years late to take the tiny white hand of "The Sunday Girl" from Blondie's 1978 masterwork Parallel Lines. The Sunday Girl is rock's ultimate hero, the pure fan as icon, on the edge of seventeen, "cold as ice cream but still as sweet," hanging on the telephone at 11:59 in her parents' lonely world (in the Upper East Side, natch) cobbling together her own dream world out of flicker-frayed movie images and allowance-money new wave singles. All she wants is a room with a view. Julian may not even own Parallel Lines, but on the single "12:51" he shows up to set free the Sunday Girl with one magic phrase: "Friday night's so damn lonely/Change yer plans a damn for me/We can go and get forties/Fuck goin' to that party"--utopianism in the languid semantics of entitlement, which is the only language Julian ever bothered to learn. That moment alone is worth going on Kazaa.
One critic has astutely noted that "12:51" takes place "fifty-two minutes after Blondie's '11:59.'" But really it's the space between, the magic hour that begins at the moment you become the shit-hottest band on earth and ends the moment you realize it can't last forever. You're always running out of time on Room on Fire--or into it--watching those good looks fade in the mirror. "I wanna be forgotten and I don't wanna be reminded," Julian sings preemptively on the album's opener against still-of-the-night microriffs. One song later he's telling us "The night's not over." Another tune hangs on the line "It's only the end," before snapping into PR mode, "You're not supposed to say that."
This is the music's pathos, but pathos requires identification between fan and band and that just doesn't happen with the Strokes (see above). This isn't Crooked Rain nor is it In Utero, and not just because the culture wars that these records came out of are over but because the thing with the Strokes is that you care so they don't have to, not the other way around as it was with Pavement or Nirvana. The genius of the Strokes is that all they have to do is put out something more engaging than the Libertines or whoever to maintain their role as kings of Mount Nothing Really Matters. Maybe the above lyrics are just tropes--you gotta have something to say in a song, and 'I probably ought to look into getting a Stairmaster' is easier than trying to figure out what to say about Iraq or some shit (one song does mumble something about 'the secrets of the government,' though I'm assuming this is a reference to the tax code).
Besides, lyrics have little to do with their lyricism. Room on Fire sounds like a Strokes record. The Candy-O kick of new wave hot sauce; the worst days of reggae and the first days of disco; the metal part that locks into the indie-rock part that leads into the sunset solo; the distant plastic letters to your Coney Island baby and all the nillas in the million-dollar villas; you slip into something out of something else. This is the golden age. We lost the war but we won the retreat. Pour out a forty, pass the Courvoisier.