The fact that I have yet to write about The Strokes honestly appals me a little. While I was only four when they released their widely-acclaimed debut Is This It, they have still left their mark on me and have been a huge influence in what music I listen to and what I’m interested in, among other things. First Impressions of Earth came as a let-down to many fans who cursed the fact that the band abandoned their earlier grungy, adolescent sound. Their third record is messier and louder and harder and the content strays far from the previous songs about teenage emotion and a life lived in the jungle of New York. The Strokes leapt into new territory with this one, and despite the disappointment of much of their audience, I love it. Listening to it almost a decade after its release made me look at it in a much different way, and I count it as one of my favourite records.
I will admit that it took me quite a while to get into First Impressions of Earth, but once I realized its true depth, I was hooked. I got into it at a time when I was consumed by lead singer Julian Casablancas’ side project, Julian Casablancas + the Voidz. The Voidz are a band whose music questions humanity and often criticizes modern society’s overall ignorance, and I think that First Impressions comes close to that, which is perhaps why I identify so well with it. Sifting through the album’s sometimes-ridiculous lyrics (“Don’t be a coconut,” among others), allowed me to find the really, really good ones, many of which also offer societal criticisms. Whatever the reason, this record resonates with me on a deeper level than the rest of The Strokes’ discography, and I treasure that.
Musically, First Impressions of Earth abandons the nineties-rock vibes of The Strokes’ previous records. The band becomes more experimental with their sound, though they remain incredibly tight and continue to show off their instrumental talent. They seem to slow down a little, but the increased volume makes up for it while also making it somewhat difficult to pay attention to anything other than the record. The whole thing is captivating, from the incredible melodic differences between each song to the sheer talent of each band member, Casablancas included. The musicality of an album doesn’t always impress me, but on this one, it truly does.
In my mind, the lyrics are often what make or break a record. Julian has been criticized by many for the lack of thought behind his words, though I believe that’s pretty far from the truth. This album packs a punch with its lyrics, and though there is a lot of repetition and perhaps a few very simple lines, the record is incredible and poetic nonetheless. “Electricityscape” is heartbreaking and one of my most-loved tracks, my favourite line being “you belong to the city now.” As easy as that phrase sounds, Julian’s signature whine takes it to the next level. “Red Light” is another favourite, with lyrics that include “the sky’s not the limit and you’re never gonna guess what is” and “seven billion people who’ve got nothing to say.” That last line always makes me feel something. It makes me think about the privilege so many of us hold but don’t put to use, the freedom that we have to speak up for what we believe in and the fact that there are so few of us who actually do so. While this is only my own interpretation of the album, I believe that many listeners have skimmed over the record without hearing its deeper meanings, which is perhaps what led so many people to dislike it.
The real societal critiques come along in “Ize of the World,” a fast-paced track that truly is about humankind’s overall ignorance. Within the first verse, Julian has already sung “sometimes it feels like the world is falling asleep/how do you wake someone up from inside a dream?”, and the politically-charged lyrics only continue from there. More lines about power and greed and freedom fill up the rest of the track, creating a song that allows the listener to question not only themselves but the world around them. Not everyone appreciates when an album or a song does that and sometimes it feels like the band could be stepping over an invisible line of what they can and cannot do, but I think it’s refreshing to hear a song about a topic that few have the guts to discuss.
Aside from those few tracks, the album is bursting at the seams with catchy songs and slower, waltz-y tracks. “You Only Live Once” is an incredible single and so is “Heart in a Cage” as well as “Juicebox.” “Evening Sun” is romantic and beautiful with endearing lyrics like “you’re the prettiest, smartest captain of the team/I love you more than being seventeen,” and “Razorblade” is emotional and frank, Julian easily repeating the line “sweetheart, my feelings are more important than yours.” The rest of the songs are just as important and full of Casablancas’ lyrical genius, and there’s an element I love in each one of them.
Overall, First Impressions of Earth is an extremely difficult album to write about – it’s much easier to just listen. There are a million and one layers of lyrics drenched in meaning and difficult guitar parts and thumping bass lines and drum fills. This post is an attempt to put all of that into words, but in reality, I will never be able to. The Strokes are far and away one of the most important bands of the 2000s, and this album really solidifies their significance. Each time I listen to this album, I’m blown away. In the process of writing this I’ve listened to it at least three times, and I swear to you I was taken aback each time. My advice to you would simply be to listen to First Impressions of Earth with open ears and an open mind. See how many secrets you can find inside of it and hold them close to your heart. Analyze them and try to figure them out and maybe just accept the fact that you’ll likely never be able to. Sometimes an album’s mystery is its best feature. This one has a lot of that, but beneath its somewhat-confusing surface is a treasure trove of importance.