Is This It
On Saturday I bought the NME for the first time in what must be at least half a decade. This is exactly how they planned it. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, everybody is a sucker for a list and how can resist a list of the fifty albums of the
Twentieth Twenty First Century so far. It is not a list that is going to blow anyone’s mind: a lot of very good music drawn from a fairly narrow range of the musical spectrum. Predicatibly and somewhat self-servingly, The Strokes top the list. The tsunami of hype that greeted the release of Is This It was probably the last gasp of the NME’s influence and reputation so there is more than a little retrospective self-justification here (see also the fact that three Pete Doherty albums make the list.) It is also notable that they spend at least as much time talking about the impact the band had on fashion as on the music itself. To hear the NME tell it they singlehandedly saved a generation of twentysomethings from turning into their dads. In actuality, all that happened is that the pendulum of taste swung back again and people remembered that they liked listening to guitar music with a decent rythmn section.
And the album itself? I bought it at the time and played the hell out of it but until this evening I hadn’t listened to it in years. In fact, the closest I’ve come to returning to the record is repeated listens of ‘A Stroke Of Genie-us’. This might suggest that what I liked about The Strokes were the driving riffs and what I didn’t like was Julian Casablancas’s voice. There is an element of this, too often his vocals are irritatingly indolent, a mix of charmless drawls and yelps, but when he howls a line like “Yes, I’m leaving/Cause it just won’t work/They act like Romans/But they dress like Turks” on ‘New York City Cops’ there is a power that really makes the song.
Coming to Is This It cold, it is easier for me to see it as an album of two halves. From the opening track it is is shockingly slow; ‘Is This It’ is like listening to someone play scales, ‘Soma’ could be called ‘Mogadon’ apart from the fact Casablancas just about manages to rouse himself towards the end, even a more lively song like ‘Barely Legal’ sounds a rehearsal for ‘Hard To Explain’. They are not bad songs but they are unexceptional and of a piece. The second half – from the opening scream of ‘Last Nite’ to album high point ‘New York City Cops’ to the abrupt goodnight of ‘Take It Or Leave It’ – is less poppy, more aggressive and all the better for it.
A bit of attitude is not enough to make a lasting work (despite the fact the NME put Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR in the bronze position). So yeah, it was nice to get it out again but it obviously isn’t the album of the decade. If anything on the NME list meets this criterion I would go for Turn On The Bright Lights by Interpol or Illinois by Sufjan Stevens, albums that had a real emotional hold over me, albums that got into my brain and under my skin rather than just being earworms, albums that – unlike Is This It – are not sat on the shelf gathering dust.