Because I’m a singer-songwriter, and because I’m an optimist, I’ve long held a belief that The Song’s the thing. When I started my career in Nashville, I saw record deals go to an executive’s son, or niece, or friend from prep school. “The Song’s the thing,” I told myself. “Keep working. It’ll pan out.” When I lived in NYC, I worked days at temp jobs, worked nights performing, and missed game-changing press because I had no massive budget for a publicist. “The Song’s the thing,” I said. “Keep working. It’ll pan out.”
Several years, countless tours, five releases, and three homebases into my career, I still believe The Song’s the thing. I believe it because I think that it’s true, but I also believe it because I have to. I’m a guy who can write songs and sing pretty and work hard. There is no Music Row Rolodex. There is no trust fund.
Prompted by one (excellent) retrospective of the Strokes’ career, a dozen (bad) reviews of the new Strokes album, and one (uninspiring) listen of the new Strokes album, I’ve become re-obsessed with old Strokes albums.
I’ve played Is This It and Room On Fire between ten and 600 times. I’ve read old reviews, features, and interviews from 2001-2003. I’ve fondly remembered where I was and what I thought when I first saw “Last Nite” on MTV2. I’ve listened to them exclusively and thought about them a lot. And mostly, I’ve fallen in love (again) with “Under Control.”
Song Of The Week: The Strokes, “Under Control“
“Under Control” is a non-single from The Strokes’ sophomore album, Room On Fire (2003). It isn’t a hit. It isn’t a rocker, and it isn’t really a ballad. It’s not particularly fast or slow. Musically, it sounds like The Strokes: telephone-booth vocals, doubled guitar noodling, punchy-but-straightforward drums. Like “Someday” (Is This It, 2001), it is a melodic, mid-tempo meditation on a relationship. Both begin with an introductory drum and a chimey, dual guitar melody. In “Someday,” Casablancas’s vocal follows the guitars and rests in the pocket; in “Under Control,” he’s a step ahead. That is, the guitar’s melody stays a beat behind the vocals; the band plays in one pocket, while Casablancas sings in an adjacent one. Conceptually, it works: when Casablancas pre-empts the guitar to sing, “I don’t want to waste your time,” the song sounds appropriately rushed.
Lyrically, the song echoes Dylan’s “All I Really Wanna Do.” Both are a litany of good intentions. Dylan’s performance plays off his persona in 1964 (literary, clever, impish); Casablancas’s performance plays off his persona in 2003 (a cad). So, t’s easy to hear the song’s expressed hope through a prism of inevitable failure (“we don’t have no control/we’re under control”). It could be a 3-minute exercise in manipulation. But I hear it as sung in earnest; an even-handed snapshot of a problematic relationship. The Strokes’ rock side has always been slightly overrated, their sweet side underrated. When I hear “Someday” and “Under Control,” I hear real regret, loneliness, and compassion. I believe them.
As a companion piece to an earlier hit, “Under Control” is a musical step forward for a developing band. As a sophomore album statement on their own success and public image, it’s a deeply satisfying time-capsule. As a case study in trying–and likely failing–to make a relationship work, it’s deftly-executed. And as a melodic, smart, self-aware, complicated, accessible, affecting, and simply gorgeous song, it’s perfect.
It’s a perfect Strokes song.
I’ve spent the last week listening to–and thinking about–The Strokes. And when I think about The Strokes, I think about their breakout in 2001. I think about all the cultural factors that lent themselves to that moment. I think about The Strokes’ relationship with the press. I wonder how they went from golden boys to whipping boys in little more than a decade. I think about Steven Hyden’s quote that, upon arrival, their “sense of self was fully-formed.” I start to think about what other bands, if any, have been so conceptually perfect so early in their career.
So then I think about Vampire Weekend’s marketing savvy, their gift for branding. I wonder if it’s a New York thing. I wonder if, to become big in New York you not only have to out-work everyone, but also out-think everyone. Or maybe, pushing it further, if that simply means out-cooling everyone. I wonder if you have to suddenly appear as the next cool thing before anyone else has ever conceived of it.
I think about all of these things, and I go down every rabbit hole and I read every column. And then I think about it some more.
It’s clear that sometime between 2001 and 2013 most music critics went from loving The Strokes to not-loving The Strokes. And it’s equally clear that The Strokes are one of the rare bands that matter even when they’re bad. These columns work to define why, and how The Strokes mean what they mean. They think about it and they go down every rabbit hole. They talk about the band’s biography, their development, their side projects, their pop cultural context, haircuts, girlfriends, substance abuse, etc. They try to do what good writing does: articulate an abstraction.
But only a few articles about music actually talk about the music.
And maybe it’s as simple as the music itself. Maybe the difference between The Strokes in 2001 and 2013 is as obvious as this: the songs aren’t as good. Is This It had a lot of great songs. Room On Fire had several. And, no matter where you stand on Comedown Machine, I don’t think anyone would claim its best song is better than “Under Control.”
We–and The Strokes–have changed a lot over the years. All of the other things matter. But maybe The Song is the thing. Or maybe that’s just what I need to believe.