Happy 15th Anniversary to The Strokes’ second studio album Room on Fire, originally released October 28, 2003.
New York City has had many guises over the years, but whatever music scene happens to be wearing the mask at the time, at its core, New York is the geographical paragon of the weird, misunderstood and effortlessly cool kid. It’s an urban playground where people go to instinctually be the version of themselves that’s sometimes hidden deep down. It’s sexy, dangerous, filled with rebellion—and you know when you’re there, you’re surrounded by people who were drawn to the city for those same reasons.
In 1998, a group of tall, skinny dudes with exceptionally messy hair, ratty form-fitting jeans and thrift-store shirts, who epitomized this “New York Cool” formed a band called The Strokes. You have Julian Casablancas as the very on-brand sulky frontman whose aloof nature can be misconstrued as being an asshole. Fabrizio Moretti who’s charming and hyperactive. Nikolai Fraiture as the soft spoken quick-witted one. Albert Hammond Jr. as the anxious “misunderstood” and charming one, the type of guy that you can’t help but be drawn to because you think you can “fix him.” And Nick Valensi as the sweetheart.
The five childhood friends released their debut LP Is This It in 2001 and by the release of their sophomore album Room on Fire had already earned a spot as the premiere pioneer-band in the New York City’s emerging post punk revival/rock scene in the early 2000s.
The booming music scene gave birth to bands like Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, LCD Soundsystem, and in the epicenter were The Strokes. The quintet created a sprawling, swaggering seventies-style punk rock on their debut, which sold more than 500,000 copies within five months of its release and in 2009 it was named Album of the Decade by NME and #2 in Rolling Stone’s list of the same period, just behind Radiohead’s Kid A. The album was met with praise, igniting an inescapable cultural influence.
The Strokes’ debut wasn’t met entirely without controversy, however. The album stirred debate, but ultimately brought back underground music to the forefront. Nearly twenty years later since the release of the debut, this particular music scene is just starting to get talked about, see Lizzy Goodman’s oral account Meet Me In The Bathroom, which borrowed its title from a Room on Fire track, that was published last year in 2017.
Soon after Is This It’s heralded release, the scene it was defining was under a microscope and the same critiques were arising, with accusations that The Strokes’ story was one of privilege, with these objectively good-looking guys from well-off families (Julian’s father is a business mogul who founded Elite Model Management) calculating their personas as “starving artists.” And though privilege may be a factor in this story, it isn’t the story. Journalists of the day were divided between The Strokes being “saviors of rock,” and “everything that’s wrong with music today,” with opinions a plenty on the band’s socioeconomic background, their overdrawn “hype” and inevitable downfall. However, nearly twenty years since the release of their debut, The Strokes debates are sillier than ever and what wasn’t being talked about was the actual music.
Released via RCA Records in October 2003, Room on Fire was produced by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. Upon its initial release, the band’s sophomore album was met with relatively neutral reviews, its only real critique being it sounded too similar to its predecessor--a critique that can be argued now, fifteen years later.
The album may have fallen a bit under the radar in the shadow of its precursor, but in The Strokes’ discography and some of the members’ side-projects, it’s still one of their best. It’s a matter of order of operation—had this been their third album, meaning had Room on Fire come after First Impressions of Earth (2006), it may have been met with more excitement. Why? Because First Impressions is the album throughout which the five decided to “branch out” and mix up their production style, try new things and get weirder, which was all met with less than favorable reviews by critics and fans alike. Hypothetically speaking, had it been released a few years later, Room on Fire would have represented a return to their signature sound.
The Strokes were not an overnight sensation and change can be good for a band, even historic. But it isn’t always necessary, and this is proven on Room on Fire, an eleven-track near twin to Is This It. The album’s opening track “What Ever Happened?” showcases Casablancas’ fuzzy, disfigured vocals in its first verse, with lines like, “I wanna be forgotten / And I don’t wanna be reminded,” reminding us that like any cool New Yorker, he is skeptical and easily agitated. This is all accompanied by dirty-treble riffs that bounce off bassist Nikolai and drummer Fab. Its second track “Reptilia” is now one of The Strokes’ most iconic songs, filled with an instrumental blitz, a one-note bass and such precision that you can’t help but feel collective jolts of energy radiate through your entire body, no matter how many times you listen to it.
Room on Fire carries with it the most memorable features of Is This It—the expert musicianship of Fab’s creative drumming, Nikolai’s melodic and severely underrated basslines, the impeccable back-and-forth guitar licks of Albert and Nick, all led together by Julian’s compressed, scuzzed-out vocals. It’s what the band has grown to be able to do with all these things that make it so impeccable. The drumbeat in “The End Has No End” that causes this frantic vitality. The almost chill-inducing catchy guitar synth lick in “12:51” that seeps into your head and doesn’t want to leave. And of course the angular-sounding guitar work of “I Can’t Win,” showcasing the aforementioned creative energy between Albert and Nick.
Room on Fire is an album built on thrill and speed, with heavy, almost manic instrumentation at every corner, subdued and despondent pleas in its lyricism and an intoxicating frenetic energy that we’ve come to associate with The Strokes.