In 2001, The Strokes were going to reinvent rock ’n’ roll. Do you remember? How could you forget?
Reviews of their debut record, Is This It, were uniformly fawning, hailing the five-piece as messiahs of the ailing genre. The Strokes were “the best young rock band in America,” according to a Rolling Stone review. They managed to become the stuff of legend without much effort, as music press praised them with one superlative after the next. They were “Lou Reed, Television and the Ramones rolled into one,” according to The Guardian, while The Stranger likened their emergence to “the second coming of the Velvet Underground.”
Due to the flattering media narrative, The Strokes were born heavyweights: Their debut full-length had just arrived, but they’d already managed to revive the bloated corpse of rock music in one fell swoop. One of the world’s biggest cultural movements suddenly owed its life to five New York City prep-school kids, and as high as the praise for Is This It was, the expectations following the band were even higher.
But for all the hype and excitement, the critics were only half-right. The Strokes were a handsome group of guys who played some infectious rock ’n’ roll, but they weren’t really the cultural successors of New York’s underbelly. They were—and still are—a distinctly nostalgic band, and perhaps the last true rock group (read: strictly non-pop rock group) to achieve long-lasting mainstream success in the 21st century.
Over their last two albums—2011’s Angles and 2013’s Comedown Machine—The Stokes veered off the stylistic course, and the criticism was mixed. But their latest release, the four-song Future, Present, Past EP, harkens back to the same intricate guitars and robust choruses that turned the band into an early aughts sensation. When the record hit last month—following the familiar “surprise” release format that’s become standard practice in the digital age—it inspired legitimate commotion, suggesting that there’s still a place in the mainstream for a band that worships Lou Reed.
This casts a peculiar aura around The Strokes, because they’ve managed to stay afloat, even as their brand of rock music has slowly disappeared into the pop music fold over the last thirty years. Nowadays, you’re likely to find a cavalcade of ebullient pop songs dominating Billboard’s rock charts, rather than bands playing a strident form of guitar music. Likewise, many chart-topping groups who fell under the “rock” moniker in the early 2000s have seen their popularity whither, leaving the impression that this fate could have befallen The Strokes at any point.
But it hasn’t. So it seems bizarre that The Strokes could dominate even a small moment of cultural conversation, especially in 2016. But still, they did last week, when they started trending worldwide on Twitter following the release of three songs and a remix. Not only was it a coup that characterized the EP as a nostalgic return, it was also the first time that a straightforward guitar-rock band had dominated headlines in quite a while.
But why did the EP conjure such a whirlwind? Probably because it carries on the tradition of the Strokes’ most cherished records, Is This It and Room on Fire. Sure, the announcement itself was a shocker, but the album offers songs reminiscent of “Someday” and “You Only Live Once,” rather than the uninspired trappings of their most recent records.
Reviews have already called the EP “an unabashed throwback to their early days,” but for The Strokes, a return to their roots isn’t necessarily a recipe for commercial success: Both Angles—which was called “a glorified spit-balling session” by Pitchfork—and the largely derided Comedown Machine peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200.
The Strokes have always been the subject of fascination, largely owing to their upbringings as the affluent children of Manhattan socialites. But they’ve also brought the limelight (in addition to the scrutiny) on themselves, by always striving for commercial recognition, and being painfully self-aware of their ambitions. Talking to Rolling Stone in 2003, Casablancas said the Strokes’ ultimate goal was to capture the Velvet Underground’s seedy vibe, but as if "they were really famous."
His scheme when starting the band “was to be really cool and non-mainstream, and be really popular” at the same time. It’s a double entendre of punk nonchalance and mainstream acceptance that’s become the band’s ethos today.
Just like critics have decried “the death of rock ’n’ roll” since the 1960s, so too have they predicted The Strokes would fade away on multiple occasions. In a review of their 2006 record First Impressions of Earth, Jon Dolan wrote for Spin, “Comes a time when every great band wonders if the world’s stopped needing them.” Dolan, like other critics, had quit hoisting The Stokes on a throne, and surmised that “First Impressions may not be the best Strokes album, but damn if it doesn’t feel like the last.”
Currently the band is free from its five-album deal with RCA, and is theoretically poised to do whatever they wish. They are still together, and are headlining festivals; they have defied the odds.
They could ostensibly part ways and fade into obscurity, as they were destined to 10 years ago, wrapping an illustrious but somewhat embattled career with a shoulder shrug. But with Future, Present, Past, it seems that they’ve opted to fulfill another mission—one of reimagining themselves, instead of an entire genre. Because even that’s too big of a task for The Strokes.