Time once more to plough the furrow of the Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums. This month, we are taking a short hop up the charts from number 242 where we last sojourned with Run-D.M.C. up to number 199 where we encounter fellow New Yorkers The Strokes with their 2001 debut album Is This It (again, where is the punctuation?).
There are two main reasons for selecting this particular record. Firstly, we are once more working in conjunction with the esteemed scholars over as The US100 who are rounding off their New York leg with an in-depth look at track 9 – New York City Cops. Secondly, my brother Jarek Zaba (founder of The US100) regards this album as one of his all-time favourites and one that had a significant impact on him during his teenage years. Saying this, he recently confessed to me that he doesn't “actually think it's *that* great” and that his affection may be borne primarily from nostalgia. I think it is a feeling which is akin to the emotions I draw from Basement Jaxx's debut album Remedy which, upon recent revisiting, was found wanting as anything other than mindless noise. Jarek was interested to get a second opinion and the Morons are here to facilitate.
Thematically, the album is an exploration of emotional conflicts, particularly geared towards the struggles experienced by a man in his early twenties getting by in the early twentieth century. Opening track Is This It sets the tone for the rest of the album as, over a plodding guitar track reminiscent of The Pixies, lead singer Julian Casablancas frames his apathy at the world in general in the context of a relationship that is going nowhere. The Modern Age details the inner turmoil that he feels at wanting to be free and reckless whilst also being increasingly infringed upon by the responsibilities of adulthood. New York City Cops takes us on a whistle stop tour through the underbelly of a city – a world in which the narrator feels more comfortable despite it being tainted by a vicious cycle of repetition.
Is This It also contains a continual thread rejecting intimacy in many of its forms. Last Nite, undoubtedly the album's biggest track, paints the narrator as a neglectful partner that would rather leave than try and make a relationship work. Hedonistic freefall song Hard To Explain gives a clear indication of how he would be in a relationship – aloof, disinterested, self-involved. Even Barely Legal, one of the few tracks without an impending break up focusses on how, when encountered with innocence, the narrator's natural instinct is to misanthropically corrupt and model in his own broken image.
The conflict presented by The Strokes continues into their musical style and it is here where I find the biggest issue with their music. On the surface, there is a lot to like. They are a high energy band singing punchy three minute interludes with ragged, whirling guitars and thudding, driving drums. Julian Casablancas' voice walks an uneasy tightrope between lethargic and hyperactive, switching effortlessly between the two with tremendous skill. Some of the riffs are just exceptional. Free-flowing and natural, it is often a shame that they are so fleeting and, like me, you may find yourself skipping back ten seconds just to prolong the moment.
Look a little deeper and I couldn't help but question the substance that sits behind the style. The album is designed to seem under-produced, conjuring up images of scrappy recording sessions in locales with enough derelict charm to foster authenticity. In reality, the whole enterprise feels a little sterile – a desperate attempt by one of the many record labels who vied for The Strokes' affection to recapture the hallmarks of a bygone era. As with fellow rock and roll rejuvenators The Libertines, it seems that a group of incredibly talented musicians have found themselves lumbered with a front man who thinks himself a Jagger reincarnation and a production company who are happy to indulge this notion. The parts are definitely there but the sum, for me, leaves a little to be desired.
In terms of commercial success, Is This It is easily The Strokes' most successful album. In terms of chart position, it was not as successful as any of the three albums that followed it. Despite charting at number 2 in the UK, it only reached number 33 in the US due to a lack of established fan base. Nonetheless, it was a critical success with NME going so far as to name it the best album of the 2000s and the 4th greatest album of all time (just think for a second about the albums it had to beat to get that). Perhaps they are seeing something that I'm not. Perhaps, if you want something to be a particular way, you will do everything in your power to try and make it so.
Then again, I might be wrong. I am a Musical Moron, after all...
Lyric Of The Week
“No, girlfriends, they don't understand//In spaceships, they won't understand//And me, I ain't ever gonna understand”
New York City fops
Sing the apathy of youth
Leave Jarek unsure
As always, please feel free to write your own review using the comments section below. The more the merrier. Please do take note of our contribution guidelines. Looking forward to hearing what you thought.
If you wish to learn more about The Strokes and, more specifically, New York City Cops then our friends over at The US100 have a plethora of further reading which you can access at http://theus100.com/tracks-9-11/. They also produce a monthly podcast, slated for release later this month, which goes into great detail about the track's social context, major players and legacy. Make sure to subscribe wherever you normally get your podcasts.