In a way, it all comes down to a voice. I can listen to Julian Casablancas sing anything. It wouldn’t matter if he were backed by The Strokes or the house band at Ark Music Factory. Maybe it’s that nasal quality, that slight sniveling buzz or burr that suggests not just coked-out bliss, but distance, detachment, a second-handedness. He sounds like he has a junky transistor radio in his throat, so that no matter how close you get, he still seems remote and unresponsive. But it’s nothing you can really point to — in fact, it’s precisely this lack of presence, of directness, that makes his voice so alluring. There’s something off, something missing in the very thing supposed to reveal his presence. He sounds like he’s either just waking up or falling asleep, coming out of a bender or falling back into one. Either way, meaning trembles on the horizon, in the next shout or mumble, but never arrives. In this, his voice has an aura, in the way Walter Benjamin defined aura: as the appearance of distance no matter how close. Listening to Julian Casablancas is like standing in front of the Mona Lisa or the Sears Tower — you want to reach out and touch it, but you’re afraid it will only recede into the distance. It’s a pleasure, to be sure, but also a painful obsession. (Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom’s voice has the same effect, but for different reasons.) This voice fades away before it hits its mark, and so you’re left stumbling along after it, listening too eagerly, too desperately, hitting repeat in order to miss it all over again. That makes it more like a fetish, I guess, in the Freudian sense — both powerful and empty. If I could, I’d wear Casablancas’ voice around my neck — on a leather string — to ward off the bad hipster spirits, even though I know it would only let me down.
This dynamic has always been the allure of The Strokes as a whole. They’re a let-down band, in the best sense of the term. Nothing ever comes together the way it should, the way it was promised, and all you can do is play it all over again. This is true of their music as well as their career. Their best songs are all let-down songs: the solos never go anywhere, the bridge is always a little clumsy, the whole piece comes too quickly to a crashing halt. And their career is a let-down career: each album, each show, each video is slightly less satisfying than the last — emptier, weaker, faker. It’s all a boon to the business, though. There’s perhaps nothing more satisfying than being let down by your musical heroes, and The Strokes have turned it into an ethos. They’ve coated their lameness in a gloss of careless cool — reflector shades, leather jackets, skuzzy afros, loud guitars: fetishes all, both distracting and empty. Their acclaimed lo-fi sound encapsulates all the charm of failure. Nothing speaks to the hipster’s heart like tape hiss; it’s like a lame lover’s last whisper, “Boy, you nearly missed out on something truly lame.”
In fact, The Strokes were never the next big thing, but the very opposite. They stumble away from the next big thing for the last lost thing. Their commitment to vintage 70s music — Television, The Stooges, etc. — implies willful obsolescence. They’re whatever happened last night (or whatever failed to happen last night). They’re whatever is the opposite of cutting-edge — all bleary surfaces and lost potency — a kind of cool that doesn’t exist anymore, that never really existed, not even at Max’s Kansas City. Is This It? No, it’s not. And neither is this or this or this… There’s nothing there, dude, nothing behind the screen, but, yeah, sure, they’ll pull it back for you one more time.
So what does it matter if their new album Angles is any good or not? It’s as good as can be expected, and that seems to suit them just fine. Four songs are awesome — truly awesome, like Manhattan-deck-party awesome. “Under Cover of Darkness,” with its screeching twin-guitar attack and bopping rhythm section, kicks it as hard as any other Strokes single. I love it. On “Two Kinds of Happiness,” the band indulges its best 70s sleaze pop tendencies and comes across as though they’re ready to conquer the world all over again, one dim disco after another. But make sure you’re still standing for the second half — you’re gonna want to turn that shit low. The other six songs are a let-down in the worst sense of the term. “You’re So Right” is either a lame joke or a horrible mistake; with its skittering rhythm section and mumbled vocals about office life, it comes across like an outtake from the botched Kid B sessions. “Gratisfaction” is the lamest approximation of Thin Lizzy swag ever attempted, and “Games” sounds like Duran Duran’s fourth comeback. Ugh.
At best, perhaps, you can call Angles a transitional album; the band’s moving away from the bleary garage sound of the first two albums toward the synth-heavy 80s vibe of their recent projects. Or, better, it’s a more “democratic” album; the boys have finally turned against Casablancas’ heavy hand and now they’re sharing songwriting duties, “exploring new territories,” and “pushing boundaries.” Whatever. The band’s tight, and every song contains at least a few interesting musical ideas, but the album as a whole comes across less like a creative mess and more like a stoned-battle-of-the-bands gone wrong. There’s a big difference between an alluring mistake and genuine failure, and Angles, as a whole, crosses the line. The opening joke — “I’m putting your patience to the test” — doesn’t do much to establish good will or confidence. It’s a sad joke, and, by the end, you might wonder whether it was worth five years and $9.99 to hear it. Indeed, at least four of these songs confront the boredom and anxiety of waiting, but no amount of ironic meta-commentary will get me to listen to this pointless effort in its entirety again.
Perhaps, then, The Strokes aren’t simply a great let-down, but the best-band-that-should-have-broken-up-long-ago. As any fan can tell, these guys are simply not communicating with each other, and, yeah, it’s a bitch to hear them making excuses about the record in other “media outlets.” They’re only doing it for the money? Casablancas is communicating with the band via email? Recording in a separate studio? Maybe it’s just showbiz, another savvy way of letting us all down, but, honestly, this band was much better when they were over-hyped. At this point, all their hip anti-professionalism comes across like crass condescension, and the whole enterprise reeks of bad faith. If Casablancas and company don’t have the balls to break up with each other, I don’t see why I should have to continue shelling out money for another date. In fact, about halfway through Angles, I had the distinct feeling that the date had gone on for far too long — I was no longer listening to the small talk, and I had more interesting friends to meet at another bar. It has nothing to do with our past. I don’t need to repeat the entire Strokes boom-and-bust mythology to know when I’m bored. I still like that voice, but its promises kinda sound like bullshit now.