Forget about "Last Nite." The single that launched the Strokes is, to paraphrase NFL coach Dennis Green, what we thought it was: the riff from Tom Petty's "American Girl," an adolescent growl, too gutless to be big dumb rock, a song so dimensionally-challenged that it couldn't draw a square around a typical mid-'60s garage stomp. Is This It begins with a yawn — the resigned-sounding, sing-song title track hears frontman Julian Casablancas admitting, "I'm just way too tired" — and it turns out that boredom is the most authentic emotion on the Strokes 'debut. (Tellingly, the album also contains songs titled "Soma" and "Take It Or Leave It.")
It also turns out that boredom is the catalyst for nearly all of the strange and wonderful things that have happened in the history of rock 'n 'roll. Is This It was the 21st century's first masterpiece of blasé theatre, a conscious changing of the style guard by five privileged Manhattan prep-school types. Much has been written about the upper-crustiness of the band members, but the Strokes 'real advantage was their cultural affluence: early teenage years spent listening to Guided By Voices, the Velvet Underground and Television — bands most Gen Xers didn't discover until college.
Casablancas 'vision arrived fully formed on Is This It, from the deliberately tinny guitar and drums to the unfashionably round bass tones and vocals that sound like they're coming through a megaphone in the apartment next door. It all sounds cheap, hammered-out (or just plain hammered) and more glorious for each implementation of its let's-get-small approach to recording. Each song chugs along with a peculiar brand of wizened youth, with Casablancas singing about regrets and lost loves with a world-weariness that's almost comically beyond his 23 years. While "Last Nite" is too slight to deserve its reputation as this debut's signature song, "Hard To Explain" is its real anthem. The ducking-and-weaving guitar melody perfectly carries Casablancas 'maze of lyrics — part scribbled bar conversations, part confused meditation on whether he should stay or whether he should go. To be so young and so old at the same time.