When The Strokes released First Impressions of Earth in 2006, it got some mixed reviews, especially from “traditional” Strokes fans.
For this reviewer, who was not such a die hard fan of The Strokes, this album was a revelation of sorts. I bought this album purely on the strength of the amazing riff on “You Only Live Once” (which gets its metallic hooks into you at first listen and won’t let go!).
Sometimes it’s good to not have any preconceptions or expectations. For artists such as The Strokes, and particularly their composer Julian Casablancas, a swift rise to fame amongst critical acclaim and media hype can mean a death warrant as far as creative innocence or purity is concerned. Oh, it’s all too easy to express yourself when you don’t think anybody’s listening, but to try and return to that introspective state while standing in a spotlight can’t be too easy.
That’s why this album, to my mind, deserves to be called The Strokes’ best. I know some may disagree, and they are welcome to post their arguments below, but this is my review and I’ll bleat if I want to!
The difficult ‘comeback’ album. What does that mean? All albums are ‘difficult’ to make to some degree, I would imagine. To me, Casablancas shows real maturity and insight on this recording. There is plenty of self-deprecating humour, raw emotion, cutting remarks, and honest observation. Lyrically, First Impressions of Earth is stellar. Casablancas has reached into himself and pulled out something both dark and alive. A noble effort.
The guitars’ interplay is like a baroque concerto with restrained cynicism, and perfectly accompany Casablancas’ couldn’t-care-less vocals. (We all know that, really, he does care. Who does he think he’s kidding anyway?) The beat, too, is rolling and precise.
It may take a few listens to really appreciate all of First Impressions of Earth’s nuances and refractions, but it has just enough pop-rock moments of brilliance to keep the average punter as happy as a New York City cop at a donut convention!
The Strokes — First Impressions Of Earth: Track-by-track review
1. “You Only Live Once”
If I was Julian Casablancas I would consider this my finest moment, lyrically speaking. “You Only Live Once” pretty much starts with the aforementioned killer riff, and when Casablancas utters ‘Some people think they’re always right…’ you know he’s gonna tell it to you straight. Which kind of sets the mood for the rest of the album.
I want to play the beginning of the second verse to my husband over and over again, just so he knows that some men do get it! The line goes:
Oh men don’t notice what they got
Ah women think of that a lot
It’s the sort of humour which is littered through First Impressions. And the way Julian punctuates his lines with loads of oohs, ohs and ahs, like some old-school balladeer, is really endearing.
As “You Only Live Once”‘s foot-tappin’ beat hammers its way subtly but insistently along, and you are taken to heaven by the absolute perfection of Nick Valensi’s precise guitar sounds, the only bad thing about is that the song (like life) ends all too soon. Great thing is (unlike life) you can always play it again!
The single “Juicebox” was accompanied by a raunchy/disturbing video (depending on your bent!) and was the Strokes’ first release off this album. The song features a bass-heavy riff under frenetic guitar playing and intensified Casablancas vocals.
In the chorus we hear him almost screeching, “Why won’t you come over here!” and then later on, the more disappointed lament “Oh, you’re so cold” is repeated. A good scene-setting song for some black comedy/film noir car chase through the streets of Manhattan.
3. “Heart In A Cage”
In “Heart in a Cage,” Casablancas is about as open and honest as you’re ever gonna get him to be. It starts with him announcing ‘I don’t feel better, when I’m fucking around,’ introduced by Valensi’s arpeggio guitar which sounds as if it’s heralding a news bulletin — as indeed it may be doing.
This album is about an outsider’s view of life on Earth, after all. Julian goes on to talk about being stuck in the city, when he ‘belongs in a field.’ The verse reaches a crescendo with the lines ‘So don’t teach me a lesson, cause I’ve already learned,’ only to state matter-of-factly during the chorus, ‘The heart beats in its cage.’
The relatively light-hearted “Razorblade” (that’s what Casablancas calls love!) is a perfectly polished gem of pop/rock precision, Julian sounding like a grungified 60’s crooner with his humorous observations of love and life:
Oh the razorblade
Wish it would snap this rope
The world is in your hands
Or it’s at your throat
This song is short and sweet and to the point (pun not intended, but fitting don’t you think!) with Julian retracting his early ‘My feelings are more important than yours’ at the last with ‘Oh sweetheart, your feelings are more important of course.’ Very cute.
5. “On The Other Side”
Another highlight (of many on this album) is this deeply personal track “On the Other Side,” which stands out in many ways, from its rock ‘n’ rolling intro to its wonderfully droll opening lyric “I’m tired of everyone I know” and the fabulous lines which build up to the chorus:
I hate them all
I hate myself for hating them
So I drink some more
I love them all
I’ll drink even more
I’ll hate them even more than I did before
Fabrizio’s upbeat tempo belies the song’s dark undertones, what with Julian wondering what’s ‘On the other side.’ Scary.
6. “Vision Of Division”
The next song on First Impressions of Earth is the obligatory breakup song, with a fierce, almost flamenco-sounding instrumental in the middle, joining two halves of verse and chorus in which Casablancas talks about a bad relationship. We’ve all been there! He ends the track with a question, ‘How long must I wait?’
7. “Ask Me Anything”
“Ask Me Anything” is maybe the most derided track on the album, which is ironic (if not surprising) as it is the most daring in a way.
Those wanting to criticise have pointed to the chorus in which Casablancas states ‘I’ve got nothing to say’ over and over again. What I have to say to those critics is: haven’t they heard of the word ‘ironic’? (If you are short of a definition, some chick going by the name Alanis has written a whole song about it!).
The song is just keyboards (or strings?) and vocals. Besides, Mr. Casablancas has plenty to say, you just have to listen to the words.
“Electricityscape” is perhaps the fullest song, production-wise, on this album, with an expansive chorus and almost jangly guitars. Here, The Strokes sound a little bit like The Killers in the track’s references to ‘Take me to the water’ and the grand, chorusy-sounding guitar in parts.
9. “Killing Lies”
If there is one slightly downbeat song on the album, it’s “Killing Lies.” It plods along without expecting too much from the listener, and doesn’t promise that much either. Its slight crescendo during the chorus and wonderful instrumental passages do much to save it.
10. “Fear Of Sleep”
Another highlight, sounding most like The Strokes of Is This It during the opening riff and first verse.
Casablancas’ vocals are suitably restrained until he drums it in by desperately repeating, ‘You’re no fun.’
11. “15 Minutes”
“15 Minutes” starts off like a rolling sea ballad in 3/4 time, with Casablancas sounding slightly bitter with the line ‘time will turn them into jokes.’
The song picks up the tempo two thirds of the way through, in a way that reminds me of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” for some godforsaken reason!
12. “Ize Of The World”
“Ize of the World” starts with some Pixies-ish sounding guitars, mimicking a radio tuning into a signal, but soon falls into familiar First Impressions territory with some smooth, rhythmic rhetoric by Casablancas, developing into a soundscape similar to “Electricityscape” in feel and tempo. However, lyrically “Ize of the World” does not a pretty picture paint.
An egg to fertilize
A pulse to stabilize
A body to deodorize
A life to scrutinize
Young adults to modernize
Citizens to terrorize
And so on.
Casablancas oversees the production like the master of ceremonies of some fictional interstellar cabaret show, offering his dry observations over the music which seems to be telling its own story.
And then the whole thing ends abruptly.
13. “Evening Sun”
A sweet little ode to love is “Evening Sun.” Love the line ‘You’re the prettiest, smartest captain of the team, I love you more than being seventeen.’
14. “Red Light”
First Impressions of Earth ends on a high, if confusing, note of optimism, with Casablancas repeating the line ‘Two can be complete without the rest of the world’ twice before moving on to murkier waters.
“Red Light” has an upbeat tempo and some nifty guitar work by Nick Valensi, which incidentally is masterful across the entire album.
And, of course, Casablancas has to end the entire album with a riddle:
Oh childhood’s end can be so competitive
And the sky’s not the limit
And you’re never gonna guess what is
First Impressions Of Earth by The Strokes
“You Only Live Once”
“Heart In A Cage”
“On The Other Side”
“Vision Of Division”
“Ask Me Anything”
“Fear Of Sleep”
“Ize Of The World”