#199: The Strokes, "Is This It" (2001)

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I have absolutely no idea when I first heard Is This It.

To clarify, that’s kinda strange for me. With almost every other song, album, movie, book, or TV show I love, I can vividly picture my first time with it and the person who introduced me to it. I know I was 8 years old when the album was first released, but my earliest memories of the album involve me (twice my life later, as a fresh-faced 16-year-old) boldly insisting it’s the “best album ever made.” I remember getting my inexplicably-sweaty Phrazes for the Young tee signed by long-time Strokes mentor JP Bowersock, explaining to my friend that “he’s the fuckin’ guru, man!” (and credited on Is This It as such). I remember starting a vinyl collection with the records I deemed “all-time greats”: Abbey Road, Is This It, and, somehow, Viva La Vida. I remember waiting all day to see “the boys” play a free concert, only to get myself crowd-surfed out of the audience three songs into their set. I remember proselytizing to anyone who’d listen about how Julian’s AM radio voice filter was the band’s greatest asset, as if it was an original thought and not the standout quote from an NME article I skimmed. I even remember Is This It being the album that fostered a close college friendship with the people who would teach me to play guitar and introduce me to Radiohead, and how I became the one defending the Strokes’ later output as “better than people say”but I have no clue when or how I was introduced to the record. The damn thing just fell into my life at some point, as if I sent it back in time from the future to follow me around like a specter. And I do mean follow: “Hard to Explain” regularly shuffles up on my walk to work, “Last Nite” is a staple of every friend’s karaoke outingseven “Someday” is almost guaranteed to play twice a day at any given store in Los Angeles. And as the album has soundtracked a good third of my life, I’ve found myself falling into auto-pilot and singing along with every track. (Except for “When It Started.” That song blows. It’s boring as hell and was written very quickly to replace “New York City Cops” possibly 9/11’s greatest casualty.)

All of this makes it very embarrassing for me to admit that until recently, I never once sat down and thought about the album’s meaning. In the many years I’ve spent with it, lyrics just sank into my mind through repeated listens and I went on to sing them, the way your dad might sing “Fortunate Son” or “Born in the USA” without realizing the parts that aren’t the chorus really fuck up the mood at the Fourth of July barbeque. Maybe I was just too arrogant to ever care if I knew what the record was about. That said, wanting to say something about the album was an easy decision; both the naked glove album cover and its psychedelic spiral alternate are seared in my brain as “important” symbols of teendom. It’s a beautiful case of dramatic irony that I only now understand whybecause Is This It is an album about youthful arrogance.

I don’t necessarily mean “youthful” as in teena lot of the ideas expressed in the album stick with people well into their adulthoods. I also don’t mean “arrogance” as in your abilities (although, wouldn’t you give anything to live in the universe where the Strokes wrote “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson?”). It’s an album about growing up and going through experiences believing that your love is the first of its kind, that your vices are unconquerable, that your problems and emotions are some unique cosmic experience that people truly “ain’t ever gonna understand,” whether they be girlfriends, grandsons, or galaxy travelers. The same song giving us those words hides them under an upbeat, swingy pop-rock sound, the same way you’d hide those “unique” parts of your life. After all, no one worries about the life of the party!

That’s not to suggest this album is the band’s massive cry for help (maybe a lil whimper at most) because it’s more of an offering to any young people that might soon cry for help, only written by five men that couldn’t even legally purchase alcohol yet. It’s the confident transmissions of a group that thinks they’ve been through the wringer and come out clean on the other side, ready to share what they’ve learned. It’s a 40-minute Sermon on the Mount from a pack of teenage Jesuses (Jesi?) come to spread their gospel to the unwashed masses. (First 9/11, now a little light sacrilege. Fuck it, mask off.)

My favorite feature of Is This It is how versatile it is in the meaning of each song. Obviously, the Strokes didn’t invent thatit’s the whole reason artists rarely step out to explain the meanings behind their songsbut they do it in such a fun way that it’s easy to be their intended audience and still come away from the album with the arrogance to think the songs couldn’t possibly reflect your experiences. From the first sentence, “Soma” is pretty explicitly a song about drugs, but on a deeper level it’s about the vices you use to cope before you’ve learned to do it responsibly. Yes, sometimes that’s drugs. Sometimes it’s alcohol, or sex, or companionship, or video games, or television….or drugs (I mean, a lot of the time, it’s drugs). “The Modern Age” is about the depressive feelings you push down, pretending the vices aren’t taking a toll on you. “New York City Cops” is about the idea that they’ll never catch up to you. Addiction isn’t within your sights, you lost the cops around the corner, you can quit anytime you want to. But you don’t want to. So the one night turns to two, and two turns to five, then to nine, then to fourteen. But it’s fine, because you’re a genius, and the forces running against youthey ain’t too smart.

When Julian Casablancas isn’t crooning about outrunning your demons, he’s probably singing about fucking them; “Barely Legal” is a song about lust and how unbelievably draining it is to be on any side of it, “Hard to Explain” is about how a relationship can be brought down by complicated differences, and “Trying Your Luck” is about the heartbreak of committing to a relationship, even when you see the iceberg coming in the distance. Even “Take It Or Leave It,” the final song on the album, caps the record with a “he ain’t shit” coda that’s also a searing break-up banger for the ages (which could have easily veered into a screed about girls only wanting assholes, but that’s besides the pointthe album is good!!)

I think most people make the case that “Hard To Explain” is the best song on the album, but for my money there isn’t a better song on this album than “Someday.” It’s the one song that breaks away from hammering you down with the frustrations of youth. The frustrations are still therebut they’re stated so plainly and honestly, with the understanding that this will all be a fond memory one day. It’s a beautiful song whose lyrics don’t try to tell you it’s not a beautiful song. It’s instantly nostalgic, and sweet, and positive and real, and it’s all the feelings you may recognize in a brief period of lucidity, if you can place yourself far enough outside of your own head to recognize that things are truly gonna be better, someday.

You know what’s particularly embarrassing to me as I write more and more about this album is that every message on this album that I internalized and ignored is right there, so plain and clear, in the title trackthe track I often skipped because it wasn’t as ritzy as the rest. It’s a perfect thesis statement. It’s about working so hard to get so little, and reckoning that exchange with what older people told you to expect. “Is This It” can be pronounced with a scoff or a sigh of disappointment. You can read it as a braggadocios middle finger to everyone who said it would be hard, or as a disbelieving question levied at everyone who said it’d be the best years of your life. Often, those are the same people. And often, they’re right. Maybe you’re just too young and too arrogant to know it yet.

—Demi Adejuyigbe