“Is this it?”
15 years ago, the world heard Julian Casablancas ask this question for the first time on the album with the same name. Back then, it was a young man asking whether or not his relationship with his girlfriend was as solid as he thought. Now, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s asking himself that same question, only this time he’s asking it about his band.
In today’s music scene where indie artists’ time in the spotlight seem to get shorter and shorter, The Strokes might as well be a legacy act at this point. They only appear together sporadically for the occasional concert or festival show, then splitting off to do solo projects. Even when they release new music, like 2013’s Comedown Machine, the effort seemed missing and the band felt like they were just seeing what stuck to the wall. So the question becomes “now what?”
“What” is Future Present Past EP, a collection of three new songs and one remix. The EP title actually makes a lot of sense, considering it starts where The Strokes want to take their sound and ends where The Strokes started with their sound. “Drag Queen” is everything The Strokes want to sound like: Casablancas’ fuzzed-out vocals, an uncomfortable beat, lyrics of an annoyed aging millennial hipster and a rather manic lead guitar from Nick Valensi. Nikolai Fraiture’s bass sounds like the beginnings of a Peter Hook bassline but never really goes anywhere, just like the rest of the song. Then there’s “Oblivius,” the present Strokes sound that’s as good as it’s ever been. The guitar interplay between Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. is delightful while Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti have a bopping backbeat. Casablancas seem much more comfortable here, almost recapturing his classic swagger while hitting the high notes the only way he can (meaning just barely). “Oblivius” is The Strokes with one foot in the fuzzed-out future and the other in the past when the wore hip clothes to look cooler than everyone else. Finally, there’s “Threat of Joy,” which sounds like something lost from the Is This It sessions: bright guitars, super simplistic bass line and Casablancas sounding like the mildly-annoyed twenty-something he once was.
Lyrically, “Threat of Joy” sounds like an alternate version of “Trying Your Luck.” Casablancas is just going with the flow of life (“I’m gonna take what comes my way / take what they give me”) and is optimistic about his future (“And for the first time in my life / I’m gonna get myself right”). “Oblivius” is Casablancas ready to retake his coolness, asking for someone to “Untame me / It’s not my midnight yet” and asks himself “What side are you standing on?” He even tries his hand at hashtag rap with “Act like a wolf but think like a sheep (Wall Street).” “Drag Queen” makes Casablancas seem like Grandpa Simpson yelling at a cloud. He doesn’t like the cool kids (“80s people dancing, ooh / Always get it right / I’d listen but I can’t tonight”), he hates modern city life (“I don’t understand / Your f***ed-up system / This sinister city”) and he doesn’t want anything to do with someone asking for “the old Strokes” (“I did not know that / Their bringing me back to my past”). The Strokes may want to advance their sound, but Casablancas doesn’t want anything to do with new music and would rather just make noise in the corner.
So again I ask, is this it? Is this all The Strokes have left to offer? Granted, Future Present Past EP is nothing terrible but it offers no reason as to why anyone should care about a new Strokes record. In fact, it may reveal that we never really needed The Strokes in the first place. The Strokes always sounded cool in concept, but in reality they could easily be beaten by their peers like Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party or Arctic Monkeys. It’s as if The Strokes liked being one of the first groups in the guitar-rock revival of the new millennium and just stayed there. Future Present Past EP is an overdue coda to a band as worn out as the old clothes they wore on MTV’s $2 Bill to look cool.