That Was It : A Band of Bros and a Definitively American Record
Why write about The Strokes’ debut album in 2018? It isn’t having a milestone anniversary, it hasn’t boomeranged back into social consciousness based on something tangential like its prevalence in a new blockbuster film, and the band certainly isn’t dropping any hints that new work is close to being released in a way that would necessitate a cultural reassessment of Is This It as the forebear of something whose arrival is imminent. And let’s face it, it’s been written about a lot. Like, A LOT. So this is a worthwhile question and I think it needs to be addressed. After all, if I don’t have a “reason” to write it, then why should you have a reason to read it? So here’s my multi-part justification.
1. I just bought it on vinyl. In what is surely the result of gross negligence on my part, I didn’t own this on vinyl until last week. Needless to say, I have been revisiting anew with fresh ears and I’ve had some minor epiphanies about it.
2. I actually have an interesting take. I can be pretty harsh on myself as a writer/thinker and I am never fully sure if my angle on something is one that is unique or if I am laying out my case well enough for it to be compelling. This one seems to tick at least the first of those boxes; whether it fulfills the other will be, as ever, up to you.
3. It’s kind of the reason for our being. Every once in a while I like to step back, take a breath, and remind you, Dear Reader, that this site exists to specialize in recontextualizing and reevaluating music from the past. While I often attempt to make a case that the reappraisal uncovers some injustice, that’s not the case this time at all. However, the observation I am about to go into could only have been gleaned after significant time and distance away from the milieu of that oh-so magical “NYC Revival” turn-of-the-century epoch, as such it falls squarely into Re-Critic’s purview.
And now, on with the show.
Since we’re going to be comparing Is This It to its musical graduating class, let’s dive quickly into some of its peers. 2001 was a hell of a vintage. The year gave us new heights from perennial favorites (Radiohead’s Amnesiac), icons reaching the top of their game (Jay-Z’sThe Blueprint), as well as some upstarts from Detroit weaving a threadbare but dapper new suit from the fabric of Delta Blues (The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells). Along the way, Bjork was being her Bjork-est on the revered Vespertine, The Shins were redefining the “indie” sound on Oh! Inverted World, and Gorillaz were on something else completely, getting heavy-meta with their self-titled debut. Any (or all) of these could not only be regarded as a great album, but could be successfully argued for being at least in some way better than Is This It.
But this is about more than just 2001 – this is about the “time”. The "time" here is the concept of a cultural moment that is used when referring to “a time long ago” or “back in those days”. As such, it’s not confined to a single calendar year – the “time” began when it began and ended when it ended. But we do need to quantify things just a bit for the sake of the argument: let’s say that the “time” we’re talking about begins with the release of Is This It – that way we’re not comparing the album to anything that came before it in a way that could seem unfair – and it ends around 2008. By 2008, most of the NYC revival bands were in hold-on-for-dear-life mode while more diverse independent sounds had risen to the top of the proverbial totem pole – also, that year Kanye West released 808’s and Heartbreak, not nearly his best album but his fame had become such that a so-so Ye album meant at least as much as, if not more than, a solid mainstream rock record. Its notoriety is an unofficial signpost toward the dawning of an era when hip-hop would overtake rock as the dominant expression of youth and rebellion.
With these things in mind, we have to widen the lens and reframe the shot if we want to judge The Strokes’ first album against other records of the "time". Now, it’s up against Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights (which I have thoughts about), and British Sea Power’s The Decline Of… (which I, again, have thoughts about), and Alligator by The National, and a couple Arctic Monkeys records, and Modest Mouse’s breakthrough crossover hit, and Arcade Fire’s undisputed classic of a funereal coming-out party. That is obviously only a random and incomplete smattering of possible claimants to the throne – and I would argue that most of them are probably more empirically successful than Is This It, a few of them in ways that make it pale in comparison. And that is my whole point: of all the records I named above, very few are still talked about regularly and even fewer have been written about as much as The Strokes' opening salvo. It doesn't mean that all those albums are less important. Unless maybe it does mean that…? It's a larger question for another time, but it's worth asking. After all, what is "importance" if it isn't the quality of being talked about years and even decades later?
Even though Is This It was inarguably outshined by several records of the time, the fact remains that it is one of the albums we still talk about. It was a landmark that just appeared one day and we all agreed that it seemed like it had always been there; it was a rallying cry that we seemed to know intrinsically without ever having been taught its metre or its rhyme. It was a rite of passage into a brand new kind of good-natured hedonism and a ticket to commonality for anyone who shared one of a few birth years. Lest it sound at any point in this article like I’m not giving it its proper due, remember, I am a fan of the album and in no way would I say that any of its attention or admiration is uncalled for. I just happen to think that it’s not the best record of its time - as you'll see, that may be for the best.
Look, it has flaws. None of them are deadly, but they’re there. Do you know the song “Trying Your Luck” without hearing it? Perhaps you do. I don’t. I’ve heard this album in its entirety no less than three hundred forty-eight times over the years (if I had to guess) and that song always leaves me cold. I don’t hate it, but in even the small sample size of this one group of songs, it feels like an also-ran, a B-side elevated to deep-cut status. The LP has more than its fair share of classic jams, but there are a couple that just feel a little too comfortably like “more of the same” to be taken seriously – this stops the album from being truly great when taken as a whole.
Speaking of its songs...you were probably, as I was, one of the overwhelming majority who heard this album originally without the inclusion of “New York City Cops”. The band originally wanted the the track to be on the album, but it was deemed by all involved to be a little insensitive given the events of September 11th, from which the dust had at the time only just begun to settle. They replaced it on the early US pressings with “When It Started”, a song that undeniably fits better within the schema of the work. “New York City Cops” is a funny, rambunctious, punky anthem that leans a little too far outside the zone of easy rock-n-roll that the Fab Five cultivate on the rest of Is This It. All this to say that if we were to judge the album with the swapping of “New York City Cops” in and “When It Started” out, as was intended, we would be left with an album that breaks the fourth wall halfway through by indulging in feedback and disorder and overt anti-authority, a shattering of its hard-won illusion of motorik bliss – like when a character on a TV show looks cheekily at the camera for a long and awkward moment before slipping back into character. All this being said, "NYCC" still a really great song, and one that can be heartily appreciated after the fact, even within its original setting as a part of the album.
Beyond these mild triflings with the songs themselves, The Strokes sounded bracingly "new" at the time. But even at the time we knew they were aping older sounds and iconographies. In the harsh light of comparison to other albums that achieved more uniqueness in the following years, it can actually sound a little rote. If one were inclined to argue against its status as a great album, this would be a pretty good place to start.
And there is a truly difficult truth we need to face here. It is possible, just possible, that Is This It is potentially (maybe) the second-best album by The Strokes within the time period we're discussing. Their LP2, Room On Fire, saw the band get more surefooted and confident, taking chances on melodicism and changing up the dynamics of songs like it was their job. If that assertion holds any water, then it plays right into the thesis here: Room On Fire is a better album that is not nearly as discussed or as remembered or as well-loved as Is This It. I'm decidedly undecided about this admittedly contentious point myself, but I'm floating it here because the fact that there is even a case to be made seems to strengthen my underlying argument.
So why, then? Why has Is This It endured and survived a constant onslaught of challengers to its status as one of the Great Albums of its time? Why is it one of a handful of records that so perfectly captured and chronicled this moment in time, so much so that it seems beyond all reproach? I think the answer is that it isn't perfect. It isn't spotless. It isn't some grand and dramatic "statement" album, and it's not the product of an already established act bringing a new level of sheen to an oeuvre that was already dazzling to behold. Is This It is a definitive American rock record, made at a time when rock-n-roll was regaining its cachet as a bastion of community and in a place where those ideas of community mattered in a fundamental way to 7 million people with a collective sense of PTSD.
The album is a scruffy underdog. It's the product of some dudes, some of whom famously learned their instruments on the fly to gain entry into the band, who are punching well above their weight class and don't give a fuck if they get knocked out. The audacity of The Strokes at this moment in time cannot be overstated, and it is exactly that moxie that America was built on. The determination, the work, and the grit that it takes to build something of your own in this country is, itself, the magic, the reason for the product. In that way, Is This It speaks to the idea of American exceptionalism in that it benefits from some hard work, some good luck, and a whole lot of belief in an idea.
The fact is that nothing American is "perfect". America's economic foibles reward the top echelon of earners and money-movers while penalizing millions of people every year who demonstrate the bad judgment to fall ill. Our societal priorities have fallen so far out of whack over the years that we've privatized prisons and incentivized mass incarceration while continuing to decrease education funding and government subsidization of social programs. Our founding document is a masterstroke in the art of building a functioning republic, but it was imbued with compromises that marginalized minorities and it still contains anachronistic elements that are untouchable so long as they serve to put cash in the coffers for special interests groups. There has never been anything quite like America, but the only way to meaningfully accept all her grace and majesty requires owning up to all the ways in which she systemically fails real people on a daily basis.
The secret to America's success, and the secret to any great American success story, is the desire to do better. This is why The Strokes hit at the exact right spot on the bell curve on Is This It in a way that has kept a conversation about it bubbling in the subtext over the nearly two decades since its release. If it were even one degree better than it is some would gloss over it or dismiss it as being too much a glossy product of ivory-tower artistes; if it were one degree worse, then most card-carrying rock-n-roll fans would have moved on soon afterward, especially considering that there was plenty more going on at the time (as we've discussed). What I personally identify with so much about Is This It is the feeling that the record isn't perfect and it isn't trying to be, it is only trying to be the best thing that the band could make at the time but all the while it's underpinned by the notion that there were improvements to make, that they would do it even better the next time.
So yes, The Strokes were a product of their time and place to some degree, but that first LP turned the tables and made their surroundings a product of them, when viewed retrospectively. They probably couldn't have done it without a burgeoning rock scene that was just starting to build steam and a bar/party network that was looking for the "next big thing". It didn't hurt that they had a cast of characters with just the right amount of hometown sass and oddball charm to be able to put it all on their shoulders. What great American story doesn't feature some lovable scumbags with hearts of gold that overcome the odds while getting a few lucky breaks along the way? That is the story of America in microcosm.
Is This It is a document of how to make it in America by dreaming big, acting out, and being unreasonably fearless while drawing on the strength of kinship. The nugget of unassailable truth at its center is its own recognition that it isn't a perfect work of art. The moral of its story is that missing out on perfection is just a chance to do better. It asks an important question and then emphatically answers it on its own terms:
Is this really it? No. But it's exactly enough.