How The Strokes Transcended the Expectations of ‘Is This It’

'Is This It' was a watershed moment in contemporary rock. Here's how the band transcended the baggage and the backlash that came with it

the strokes is this it

Photo by Roger Woolman

The Strokes’ only bona fide classic, Is This It, has been a strange paradox for the New York rock band. The album was hailed as a great rejuvenator of rock and roll upon its release in 2001 – but its astounding success brought impossibly high expectations with it. The record became an albatross that the band was unable to shake for what Pitchfork called a “decade and a half of backlash.” But things have changed.

We all know the origin story: a band of boarding school pals hits it big with a stripped-down rock album that paired effortless cool with New York proto-punk influences including Lou Reed and Television. The youthful anthem ‘Last Nite’ was ubiquitous that summer, and the Strokes were hailed as successors to the throne of New York rock. The impact of Is This It was seismic; it helped launch a wave of garage rock bands that washed a crowd of turn-of-the-century mooks and TRL stars off the edge of the pop landscape.

Then came the hard part.

The band’s 2003 follow-up, Room on Fire, was well-received – but the Strokes were criticized for playing it safe and sticking to the formula that made them famous. NME gave the album a score of 9/10 but called it “a carefully calibrated attempt not to fuck up.” David Fricke of Rolling Stone said “the Strokes have resisted the temptation to hit the brakes, grow up and screw around with a sound that doesn’t need fixing — yet.”

What wasn’t broken in 2003 definitely needed fixing three years later. On the sprawling, forgettable First Impressions of Earth, The Strokes sounded like anything but saviors of rock and roll. They finally took the time to stretch out musically, and experimented with ballads and a waltz – but the results were as dull as Julian Casablancas’ lyrical confession that “I’ve got nothing to say.” The tepid critical response to the band’s third record seemed to sting; guitarist Nick Valensi sounded hopeless when he said, “I’m not even sure we’re going to make a fourth album.”

the strokes governors ball

The Strokes at Governor’s Ball 2014. Photo by Jordan Uhl

Likewise, 2011’s Angles garnered mixed reviews – but felt like the reintroduction of a band that had taken a much-needed hiatus from the spotlight. Just two years later, The Strokes released the propulsive Comedown Machine, on which they seemed to be enjoying themselves for the first time in ages (especially when Julian tossed off laugh-out-loud lyrics like “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?”). Where previous genre explorations fell flat, Comedown Machine‘s experiments (like the gauzy, evocative ‘Call It Fate, Call It Karma’) were treasures. The Strokes seemed to rediscover their joy of writing at around the same time that its audience recovered from the hype hangover of the Is This It era. It just took awhile.

Last year, The Strokes released their Future Present Past EP, which includes the band’s best song in a decade (‘OBLIVIUS’). The band hit the road and seemed energized by their new material. In some ways, it’s the same Strokes as always: they continue to churn out the hits onstage with confidence and grace, and Casablancas’ opaque lyrics and aloof persona make him as curiously inscrutable as ever. Yet, for the first time in their career, the Strokes seem free of the bonds of the past.

Furthermore, the band’s recent live shows reveal an important evolutionary step in the lifespan of The Strokes. This is no longer a band that is merely touring in support of its most recent release – but one of the century’s dominant rock acts, performing a set list studded with a decade and a half of hits. Although some of the band’s LPs failed to measure up to their full potential, they produced hits (like ‘You Only Live Once’ from First Impressions of Earth) that have matured into crowd-pleasing mainstays of the band’s live act.

This band has endured a lot to reach this new era of its career. And now they can discover what they’re capable of when there’s nothing holding them back.

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