"With Stephen," the narrator says, "it's all empathy and imagination and exploration and the shock of the new, and the outcome is....uncertain, if you know what I mean. I'm engaged by it, but I'm not necessarily sure what it's all about. David, on the other hand, presses this button, then that one, and bingo! Things happen. It's like operating a lift -- just as romantic, but actually just as useful."
So it goes with the Strokes and us. We fell in love with the shaggy-haired New Yorkers in a giddy rush in 2001, and we've been living with them ever since. It's been a long two years, and plenty of other affection-hungry rock bands have come sniffing around our bushes since we answered "Hell yes!" to the consummately cool Is This It. There were the Radioheads (who made us feel smarter than the Strokes ever do), the Yeah Yeah Yeahses (who, frankly, offered a little more in the looks department), and wave after wave of shy indie-pop bands, who fawned all over us when we sort of remembered their names at parties.
All of these potential paramours tested our musical fidelity in various ways over the years, but none of them, really, could match the irresistible confidence of the Strokes. We have danced together, yelled together, worn tight pants and dangled cigarettes together. But passion doesn't age very well, and there's only so long you can trade on the excitement of the early days of a relationship. When we heard a new release was imminent, we maybe thought it would mean that the flushed momentum we felt upon first hearing "Last Night" and "Someday" could reappear and expand.
If that's really what we're looking for, Room on Fire might as well be our affair's requiem. After all the promises made with Is This It (best band in the United States? best band in the world?), the Strokes have stepped forward with a brave new blueprint for our future together, and it looks a lot like everything that came before.
Singer Julian Casablancas is still moaning every song through the overdrive effect that makes his voice sound raggedly bemused, like he's having the sloppy-drunk time of his life (but isn't entirely convinced the party is worth sticking around for). The guitar work from Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. features the same jabby, electric solo flights over double-speed strums as Is This It, and bassist Nikolia Fraiture seems content to explore the identical droning sweet spots. The drums, still courtesy of Fabrizio Moretti, are just a more disco-laden echo of the debut.
The familiar sound may have something to do with the fact that Room on Fire was shaped by the same hands as Is This It. After announcing they were going to be recording the CD with Radiohead's producer, Nigel Godrich, in spring 2003, the band members changed their minds, and went back to Gordon Raphael, the man who midwifed their debut.
Same producer. Same-sounding songs. It would be just cause for some earnest hand-wringing about creative development and career longevity if it didn't all sound so damn good. Sure, Room on Fire is no great leap forward for the band. It contains no spiritual awakenings; no yogis; no Yokos. What it has, though, are three springing, cartwheeling songs that reprise the best of Is This It. And seven songs that sound fine. One hundred percent fine. And one really, really nice slow song that will likely be played at proms through to the end of time.
To which I say: Great going, Strokes. Let's stay together forever.
Because, as Hornby's character explained, the ability to push buttons has nothing to do with freshness or newness or shocking acrobatics. Take "12:51," the single off Room on Fire. The song is essentially one huge, Cars-esque keyboard line, some handclaps, and guitar chords that get recycled almost everywhere else on the album. It's impossibly simple and totally familiar, but when you hear the sound, the insouciant rumble, it just does it. Buttons pushed. Period.
Don't get me wrong. Part of me had hoped that Room on Fire would break new ground and see the Strokes reinvent themselves in brazen new colors and costumes. But let's face it: They just don't have it in them to be a Talking Heads or an Elvis Costello. If someone gave the Strokes an African kalimba, they'd probably try to smoke it.
The older I get, the more I see just how OK this is. There is a real art to constancy, to hearing a beautiful, consuming sound in your head and chasing that vision the rest of your life. So I'm happy that Room on Fire is essentially the same record as Is This It, with a few new trills and tricks. When I need mind-expanding originality and shocking newness, I'll go flirt with the bands who ply that trade.
Most of the time, though, I just want to be close to something that's going to make me feel excited about being alive, to music that leaves me feeling satisfied and full. Which is why I raise a toast to the Strokes, and another year of this decidedly familiar, wildly reliable, and absolutely irreplaceable thing we've got going on.