The Emotional Timelessness of The Strokes

What I never expected during a year of total isolation was all of the nostalgia-fueled musical journeys I’ve been on thus far; whether it be reflecting on how My Chemical Romance provided an outlet for my queer awakening in middle school, my pretentious Indie Kid™ phase of thinking liking Nirvana and Joy Division made me unique, or finally shedding my “not-like-other-girls” mentality and admitting to myself that I’ve always kinda liked Taylor Swift. 

But nothing could have prepared me for the rabbit hole I would fall headfirst into the minute I picked up Meet Me in the Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s oral history of the garage rock renaissance that blew up in New York City at the turn of the 21st century. 

All of those bands mirrored certain turning points in my life. Karen O’s magnetic vocal performance on “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was a healing balm that soothed and comforted me through the emotional turbulence of starting puberty. Interpol’s “Evil” was the first dirty bassline I ever heard when I was five, and it changed my world. And the sorrowful “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down,” by LCD Soundsystem was comforting to listen to whenever it felt like New York was crushing me.

But there’s one particular band whose discography I always return to every few months. The band that barreled through the doors of NYC’s Luna Lounge in 1999, and went straight into playing MTV and SNL not even three years later. The band that singlehandedly launched a brand new age of guitar music—The Libertines, Arctic Moneys, The Killers, and Franz Ferdinand are all heirs. I’m talking about a little band called The Strokes.

I won’t lie; when I was in my late teens I fully wanted to be Julian Casablancas. With his coldly rigid demeanor and scuzzy lyrics about casual hookups and the late night trivialities of city life, he was an unapologetically brash dirtbag to the core — but a self-aware dirtbag — one that I begrudgingly grew to love. He was easy for me to emulate with the way I dressed, the way I acted, and the way I conducted myself. I could easily relate to him because he was an endearingly awkward kid who was well aware that he was playing a game. He made it abundantly clear that the confident rockstar repose illusion he oozed was just that — an illusion. His image became a vessel for me to reclaim that confidence that I severely lacked growing up. If I faked it long enough, then maybe I would eventually believe that I was capable of being just as powerful — not to mention that his songwriting almost singlehandedly got me through college.

When I first arrived in New York, I was convinced it would kill me. The mythology I had internalized about the city being the place where people with “big dreams” go to “make it,” was immediately upended the day I arrived. It felt like having my soul sucked out by a demon. Everything was expensive. The smell of piss, garbage and tainted molecules permeated my senses every day, and the MTA was always late. I absolutely fucking hated it. And yet, that romantic mythology was, and is, still alive in me. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The Strokes’ very first record, Is This It, was the soundtrack to my transition into college life, constantly in the backdrop of my excursions around the city from borough to borough.

Since the beginning of lockdown in March, I’ve been stuck in my childhood home in the armpit of suburban Massachusetts. It’s been exactly ten months and a total of 309 days; the longest I’ve ever been away from New York. As a result I’ve suffered from crippling depression, sleeping day after day with zero semblance of a routine except for school work. The only thing that’s been keeping me somewhat motivated to stay active and do something has been music. And the closest I’ve gotten to putting myself back into the spirit of when my bright-eyed, bushy-tailed self first arrived in New York at eighteen, was in April, when The Strokes released a record for the first time in seven years. The album cover was a Basquiat painting and the lead single “At the Door,” was a melodic, almost operatic departure from their typical classic rock sound.

What is it about the Strokes that makes me so emotional? Well, the only appropriate answer would be everything, but especially the way that the band uses intervals. I think Regina Spektor put it best when she said that the band’s riffs mirror that of a classical symphony, where the intervals compress and pulsate until they finally reach a climax and release, eliciting an emotional response from listeners.

Julian Casablancas’s rough, husky vibrato, Albert Hammond Jr.’s ascending leads, and Nick Valensi’s iconic intervals trigger these physical and emotional pangs in me that are hard to describe. The band is the very definition of the whole being greater than the sum of their parts. When they start playing, they transcend space and time. And the writing is sublime. The lyrics on a song like “Someday” are so melancholic and regretful. Casablancas references his fears coming to him in “threes,” breakups, and becoming an adult and quickly realizing that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. The narrator is forced to work overtime just to survive, and like clockwork, he immediately wishes he could reclaim his youth; the “good old days.”

Is it possible to only be 22-years-old and already feel like “the good old days” are behind you? I’m about to graduate college without the experience of being on campus. I won’t be able to commemorate the experience with friends. I can’t see live music and I won’t be able to go out to my favorite spot in the city and get wasted one last time before I have to face the soul-sucking pressures of adult life. I still don’t have a clue what I ultimately want to do or how I’m going to survive. 

But by some miracle, every time I listen to The Strokes I feel like I’m being reassured that somehow things are going to turn out alright. I can’t quite put my finger on the pulse of what exactly it is about The Strokes that draws that response out of me, but they took so many sensibilities from many of my other favorite bands (The Velvet Underground, Guided by Voices, The Cars) and carried that invigorating sound and spirit into the modern age.

People often argue about The Strokes’ legacy, and many people are quick to diminish their impact. But nothing can take away the raw timelessness of a record like Is This It. And the fact that they released a sublime new record in April was a damn good silver lining to find in this dumpster fire of a past year. 

I haven’t been setting any goals or resolutions for 2021. The most activity I’ve done is weep in my childhood bedroom while looping the song “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” as I continue down the path of figuring things out for myself. And that makes the idea of moving forward feel strangely comforting. 

One response to “The Emotional Timelessness of The Strokes”

  1. I wore my “Is This It” disc out in the early 2000s. The songs felt new and nostalgic all at once, what a great feeling that was. Thanks for bringing me back.

    Spending your senior year so isolated must really suck. Here’s hoping 2021 brings more freedom and opportunity.

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