I have no idea if Iggy Pop’s The Idiot was an influence on Julian Casablancas when he was writing The Strokes’ Room on Fire, but the two records present their singers in transition. The Idiot, finds Pop wanders around Berlin completely fucked-up. The night-life is still alluring, but he’s struggling to find a way out. He sings about the club-life with a loving eye on “Nightclubbing” only end up on a train in “The Passenger” reflecting on the life that’s passing him by.
Casablancas’ mind-set seems similar throughout Room on Fire. He’s ready to move on beyond the drunken nights, even though he’s still in the thick of it. “It’s just a phase, it’s got to pass/I was a train moving too fast,” Casablancas observes on “Automatic Stop”. The Strokes’ debut was an ode to New York City night-life circa 2000 and 2001: distant, cool, ironic with a bottolm-less supply of parties. Whether or not they invented modern hipster-dom, they certainly perfected through their image and the music found on Is This It. Room on Fire contains plenty of parties, but Casablancas seems unsure whether he wants to be there or not. If Is This It was a straight-up party-record, Room on Fire is the end of the night where you know a horrible hang-over is inevitable, and yet you keep drinking anyway regardless of the consequences.
“I said, ‘please don’t slow me down if I’m going too fast,”” Casablancas screams on “Reptilia”. Considering that he would eventually become sober a few years later, it’s hard not to interpret this line as a cry for help. “Reptilia” is the band’s “Passenger”: the sound of a man caught between two worlds, neither of which sounds completely appealing to its narrator. The music on the song is the most intense the band has ever recorded. Nick Valensi offers a furiously glorious riff – it’s chaotic and melodic. Underneath, Albert Hammond Jr’s rhythm is violent and unwavering. Its pulls the listener along at a frantic pace and the effect is unnerving.
Signs are elsewhere throughout the album. “We could go out and get 40’s/fuck going to that party,” Casablancas tells a girl on “12:51”. Drinking and getting wasted still has its appeal, but he no longer wants to be in a crowd – he’ll meet girls in the bathroom. Could it be that he’s tired of his own image or crowds in general? Perhaps he’d like to just fade away as evident on “Whatever Happened?” “I wanna be forgotten,” He muses. “And I don’t want to be reminded.” The song also name-checks Tennessee Williams – whose plays were filled with tales of alcohol abuse. Is Casablancas wondering if his own life could turn into a Tennessee Williams type play?
It isn’t just Casablancas that is stuck between two worlds. The Strokes as a band in 2003 faced a tough choice. Retread the same sound on Is This It, or try something completely new. To do either might prove unwise and potentially disastrous. Luckily, they had the foresight to improve upon their sound and add some other influences without completely alienating their signature sound. The ballad “Under Control” has a strong Soul groove, while “Automatic Stop” contains a reggae beat. Nick Valensi’s synthesizer guitar tone on “12:51′ would foreshadow the 80’s vibe The Strokes would take on their latest album Comedown Machine.
Room on Fire might not be as groundbreaking or influential as Is This It but it might be the better record. There’s more at stake in its eleven songs and its hardly Is This Part II as some critics suggested upon its release. Like Pop on The Idiot, Room on Fire is a fascinating character-study of a narrator who balances self-destruction and self-realization.