The explosion of the post-punk revival in the indie rock scene was fronted by several giants that seemed to find overnight success with their guitar-centric, tight and concise albums that borrowed cues from Joy Division, The Smiths, New Order and The Replacements. The Strokes were one of these acts, and “Is This It” remains a decade-defining album that perfectly captures this period in indie rock.
I like to think of this album as a somewhat conceptual work surrounding a night that starts with a breakup, proceeds into a walk around New York City at nighttime as the protagonist chases after a moment of clarity and tries to put together the pieces of where the relationship went wrong (with a few moments of sobriety being questionable) and then comes to a close with dawn breaking and a sort of peaceful resignment reached in closing.
The opener, which is also the title track, sets the tone for the somewhat resigned and slacker feel of the album. Julian Casablancas sounds exhausted and worn out with the prospect of having to talk his way through a disagreement with a significant other, even leaving his heavy breathing and signing up front in the mix of the track. The lazily rising and falling scale riffs of the album create a weary yet instantly catchy feel to the track, and the drum beats like the hopeless footsteps of a heartbroken twentysomething.
From here we traverse into “The Modern Age” and “Soma,” two short and punchy tracks that Casablancas disguises his voice under layers of effect to blend right in with the just-messy-enough guitar riffs. Despite the hopeless feeling of the first track, these two tunes keep a pretty lighthearted, tight and concise feeling to them, setting the album on the path of instant catchiness.
Casablancas’ leading protagonist then becomes introspective, singing about his experiences with women and the early formation of this newly broken relationship with “Barely Legal.” The drums and repetitive guitar riff keep the song upbeat and poppy, despite the nostalgic feeling of the lyrics. Casablancas’ protagonist argues with himself over the positive and negative decisions he’s made in life, debating his shortcomings and failures as an adult and romantic partner.
From here come the album’s two biggest tracks, “Someday” and “Last Nite.” Both use an upbeat and happy instrumentation scheme to mask lyrics about breakups and yearning for a better time. “Someday,” despite how optimistic and dancey it sounds, features lines like “My ex says I’m lacking in depth/I will do my best/You say you wanna stay by my side/Darlin’, your head’s not right/Alone we stand, together we fall apart.”
The protagonist seems to be coming to the slow realization that this breakup really was for the best, despite trying to negotiate a potential get-back-together. The self-aware lyrics seem to indicate that Casablancas knows the inability of a revival of that former affection, though, but thankfully we get a plucky bassline and a whimsical guitar riff to keep the mood light.
“Hard to Explain” remains my favourite on the album, with its quirky confessional-style chorus and rapid-fire drumbeat overlaid with equally rapid trips up and down the scale from the guitar riff. The song maintains a somewhat self-deprecating yet playful tone as Casablancas protests that he “was an honest man” and that “I say the right thing/But act the wrong way.”
The song both manages to be sarcastic while genuine with its evaluations of the protagonist’s idiocyncrasies and shortcomings as an emerging adult, and the instrumentation grooves along beneath it like a perfect tune to commute on the subway to (or in my case, generally walking along to class).
The album ends with the sunrise over the Lower East Side, and Casablancas coming to a sort of closure with the breakup and weird, introspective and wild all-nighter he’s just put himself through trying to make sense of it all with “Take it or Leave it.” The leading guitar riff skips along in a teasing and playful way, while Casablancas quickly transitions vocally a rough and scratchy delivery of the track’s title, sounding both manic, angry and self-assured all at the same time.
It’s a perfect end for the career-kickstarting album for the NYC-based garage rockers, and a great cliffhanger into what they’d be releasing come “Room on Fire.”
What do you think of this record? Are you a Strokes fan?
Thanks for reading, and God bless.