As usual, the Strokes are getting away with murder. You know the deal: they plunder their musical influences and then justify it with a shrug. They write simple songs that are glossed over with a sheen of effortlessness, a nonchalant dash of style that is the essence of their success. Finally, and perhaps most offensively, they disregard hygiene, which has granted them magazine covers and celebrity girlfriends. But who cares? With the release of Room on Fire, the swift, sophomore chunk of rock from the Strokes, the band proves once again that they certainly don't.
It's easy to be conflicted about the Strokes. During the midst of the hype and backlash surrounding their debut, 2001's Is This It?, my personal opinions about the band performed the most radical about-face that I've ever experienced. I despised their derivative sound and their take-it-or-leave-it approach to fame. But the more I forced myself to be exposed to the album, the more curious I became. Before long, I found (gasp!) an emotional sincerity lurking somewhere in the songs. It's not the first time that something old was hailed as something new, and there's a certain level of authenticity that can't be faked. At least I like to think so.
Contrary to much of Room On Fire's pre-release press, the Strokes' sound has barely evolved at all. The band claimed that fans would sense more of a dance-y '80s vibe than the '70s grit that their debut is associated with. This is true to some extent, but the truth is that it's still the Strokes, and the band was smart enough (or lazy enough) to heed the advice, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Thankfully, Room on Fire does display a slight progression of musicianship. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture adds some creative walking structures into bass lines that are usually as lanky and expressionless as he is. On Is This It?, drummer Fab Morretti was a regular Ringo Starr, providing the simplest drum beats in the world for the best rock band in the world. However, the versatile percussion on Room on Fire provides the album with some of its best flourishes.
The Strokes are full-fledged celebrities now -- rock stars, faux-reluctant fashion icons, cigarette bumming heirs of Manhattan. Their frontman, of course, is Julian Casablancas, a ragged city kid who has been mesmerizing multinational audiences with that emotionless adolescent stare. On Room on Fire, he exercises his flair for unabashed sing-a-longs and poppy melodies (the lead single "12:51" could pass for a Cyndi Lauper song). But these elements are tempered by his haunting groans and increasingly bitter lyrics. On "The Way It Is," he rasps, "I'm sick of you / And that's the way it is / But that's not your problem."
Criticize him if you will, but Casablancas has proven himself capable of accomplishing a task that only the best songwriters of his generation have successfully completed. He builds atmosphere out of evocative lyrics and emotional scenery, and he does it without leaning on linear narrative or songs with singular interpretations. He will design a song out of a complaint, a vague romantic confession, and a few street corners. He never fills in the blanks for the listener, and he is not afraid to allow a few unrelated thoughts collide and reflect off each other. It is a depth of artistry that has lent depth and mystique to the songwriting of Beck, Elliot Smith and Kurt Cobain.
If you can take a risk, go ahead and take Room On Fire for what it is -- beyond all the rumors, the wealthy backgrounds, the VH1 blurbs and the imitation Strokes bands. What you will find is fractured confessions amongst fragments of a shadowy Manhattan nightlife. On "Under Control," Casablancas deadpans, "I don't want to change the world / I just want to watch it go by." That kind of sincerity has granted Room On Fire the ability to rise above the relentless youth of its creators.