The world — the indie rock one, at least — divides into two camps; those who believe the Strokes should stick to infinitesimal variations on Is This It, and those who’d rather have them do anything other than that. Comedown Machine has the goods to satisfy — and piss off — both camps, and that’s exactly as it should be. Although initially hailed as minimalism-savvy saviors anointed to rescue a dying rock scene from the continued injustices of corporate nu-metal, the Strokes have from the start been far too cosmopolitan to be an unqualified back-to-basics band: No act fronted by Switzerland boarding-school swells could pretend they’ve never ventured beyond a suburban garage.
As suggested by the album’s pre-release tracks “All the Time” and “One Way Trigger,” the quintet’s fifth album is both classic Strokes and the furthest thing from it yet. “50/50″ offers a heavier variant on the distorted vocals and nervous guitars that drove the kids crazy on “Last Night,” while “Partners in Crime” borrows that song’s caffeinated Motown beat even if it sneaks in a crazed, nearly Van Halen-esque guitar solo at the end. There are hooks, snappy arrangements, and louche swaggering aplenty here: The Strokes haven’t stopped being the Strokes.
Yet they also mess with the formula more than they ever have. Although some have already pegged this as a Julian Casablancas solo album in spirit, the singer mostly avoids the vocal ticks for which he’s famous. The curve-throwing falsetto of “Take on Me”-evoking teaser “One Way Trigger” shows up on the New Wave funk of “Tap Out” and reappears in parts of the skittering “Welcome to Japan,” as well as on “Slow Animals,” “Happy Ending” and the queasy balladry of “Call It Fate, Call It Karma.” Aside from the click-clack of low-key Linn drums and a warbling sequencer on “Chances” (yet another falsetto showcase), the synths that defined the singer’s 2009 solo effort Phrazes for the Young are nowhere in sight; in their place are more varied guitar blasts and buzzes than many bands attempt in their careers. Unlike its disjointed 2011 predecessor Angles, Comedown Machine feels more like the product of a unified band, albeit one bent on expansion. The world has always been their oyster: Here they crack it much further open.