10 Years Ago, The Strokes Triumphed Through Adversity to Create Angles

The band's most engaging and exploratory album to date

The Strokes
The Strokes

Throughout the 2000s, New York quintet The Strokes were considered the kings of post-punk revival. Drawing from artists like The Doors, Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam, Bob Marley, and most notably, The Velvet Underground, their charming indie/garage rock raucousness was virtually everywhere for several years. Of course, it all started when they inspired their own set of peers and protégées — including LCD Soundsystem, The Killers, and Kings of Leon — while skyrocketing into critical and commercial favor with 2001’s debut LP, Is This It, which topped our list of  “The Top 100 Albums of the Decade” in November 2009.

Although 2003’s Room on Fire and 2005’s First Impressions of Earth weren’t as widely celebrated by the press — due mainly to a perceived lack of newness and a penchant for safe songwriting — they were generally welcomed by fans. Plus, they did equally well on the UK Albums Chart as that first effort, and they even landed much higher on the Billboard 200 (both peaking at No. 4, compared to Is This It’s No. 33 spot). Thus, it came as quite a surprise when the band announced that they were going on a hiatus following the 2006 tour for First Impressions of Earth. For the next three years or so, they worked on solo projects and other things, waiting until around March 2009 to officially announce that they were writing new material for their fourth album.

Unsurprisingly, then, expectations were particularly elevated for The Strokes’ return, as they sought to retain their beloved qualities while also pushing their sound further than ever. Indeed, Angles — released exactly two years later, on March 18th, 2011, via RCA — did precisely that, striking a very likable and commendable balance between familiar techniques and surprising experimentation. Although the finished collection was applauded for its reinvigorating cohesion and adventurous asides, the process of getting there was anything but easy, resulting in a textbook example of creators greatly yet beneficially suffering for their art.

The Strokes - Angles

Likely the biggest hardship came from their plan to make Angles far more collaborative than its forbearers. Whereas frontman Julian Casablancas steered the ship for the prior three records, the other four members were meant to have a larger role this time around. Actually, guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. once alluded to the notion that the title was meant to represent how the disc “comes from five different people”; likewise, guitarist Nick Valensi commented, “This is the first one where we are truly working democratically. It’s taken a long time because this is a new model for us.”

Unfortunately, that plan was easier said than done, mostly because of how absent Casablancas seemed to be. According to Valensi, Casablancas would send over his vocals parts via email, with “really vague” directions for the rest of the band — and their crew — to interpret. Valensi continued: “I won’t do the next album we make like this. No way. It was awful — just awful. Working in a fractured way, not having a singer there … Seventy-five percent of this album felt like it was done together and the rest of it was left hanging, like some of us were picking up the scraps and trying to finish a puzzle together.”

To be fair, Casablancas has refuted this, well, angle of the story by saying that his absence was meant to encourage his bandmates to become more involved in the writing process; plus, he says, they actually “sat in a room in a studio” and wrote everything together (even if they recorded separately). In any case, it’s clear that The Strokes felt divided during the making of the record.

Another issue came with Angles’ production and direction. After deciding not to bring back Gordon Raphael — who’d produced or co-produced their first three outings — the group picked Joe Chiccarelli (who’d previously worked with The Shins, The White Stripes, My Morning Jacket, and Ely Guerra, among others) to fill the role. Essentially, they aimed to maintain their established aesthetic while also playing around with new recording techniques (such as backing vocals) and instrumentation (namely, more keyboards to achieve a sound closer to new wave and power pop).

That would’ve been perfectly fine had The Strokes and Chiccarelli been on the same page, but they weren’t. Rather, Chiccarelli’s safe and “strict” methodology was incompatible with the group’s need for expansiveness and boldness. So much so, in fact, they ended up dropping or reimagining almost all of the 18 demos they’d worked on together (only closer “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight” is unchanged), dropping Chiccarelli, and carrying on with engineer Gus Oberg (who also became co-producer). Taking all of this into consideration, it’s not hard to see why Angles took two years to come out and ended up being recorded across three places: Avatar Studios, Electric Lady Studios, and One Way Studios (which was founded by Oberg and Hammond Jr. around the time they worked together on Hammond Jr.’s first two solo records).

Luckily, making Angles became an easier and more pleasant experience from there, with Olberg deducing that The Strokes were excited about making the material “more crazy” to avoid creating “a standard rock album.” In addition, they agreed with Olberg about including only ten tracks since, as he puts it, “The album is already so intense, with a lot of information and intense lyrics … We wanted to keep it short.” Clearly, the end result was worth all of the preceding turmoil, as Angles is a more ambitious, sundry, and memorable statement than First Impressions of Earth, to say the least.

By and large, critics and fans felt that way, too. Specifically, Rolling Stone’s David Fricke compared it to the “expansive sound” of The Velvet Underground’s Loaded, concluding that it was their best LP since Is This It and definitely “worth the wait.” Similarly, Spin gave it 8 out of 10, declaring that it sees the quintet “slouch back to life with a fourth album that reminds you why they were so irresistible in the first place.” (True, outlets such as Pitchfork, The Guardian, and PopMatters were less encouraging, but most reviewers felt positive about it.) Angles fared well commercially as well, landing at No. 1 in Australia, No. 3 in the UK, and — like its predecessors — No. 4 in America.

In hindsight, Angles accomplished exactly what it set out to do, combining The Strokes’ tried-and-true proto-punk revival formula with some ancillary influences and individualized proclivities (such as the synth-pop edge of Casablancas’ 2009 solo debut, Phrazes for the Young). Opener “Machu Picchu” embodies that wonderfully, as its sleekly sharp guitarwork and chicly blasé vocals are matched by poppy melodies and a surprisingly airy and danceable disco/funk vibe. Elsewhere, “Two Kinds of Happiness” packs plenty of 1980s glitziness prior to the surprisingly dark, abrasive, and moody “You’re So Right” (which feels like The Strokes’ take on a lost track from Radiohead’s Kid A). Then, “Metabolism” borders on progressive rock with its shuffling density and intricacy before “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight” closes the record with the comforting and nostalgic immediacy of The Smashing Pumpkins. Sure, “Under Cover of Darkness”, “Taken for a Fool”, “Gratisfaction”, and “Call Me Back” are more traditional, but only by comparison since they, too, do things a bit differently.

Naturally, the daringness displayed here also paved the way for The Strokes’ follow-ups (2013’s Comedown Machine, 2016’s Future Present Past EP, and 2020’s The New Abnormal). Even so, Angles remains their most effective and enduring fusion of these varying styles. It’s truly a praiseworthy instance of a band persevering through multiple setbacks to accomplish a shared goal and fully realize an artistic vision. Just as Is This It set a precedent for their first 10 years, Angles kicked off the second decade of their legacy with comparable creative heft and longevity.

Pick up a copy of Angles here