For a band anointed saviours of rock 'n' roll, The Strokes have always appeared curiously reluctant to rise to the challenge. Five endearingly louche New Yorkers, their excellent debut, 2001's Is This It, took up sundry New York influences - Television, Blondie, the Velvet Underground - and recast them in a manner that felt fresh and effortless. But a procession of monosyllabic press interviews has revealed them to be a band with little to say and a self-conscious way of putting it, and attempts to top their debut have had a somewhat neurotic feel - never bad, exactly, but clearly forged under the pressure that comes from heightened expectation.
Much like its predecessor, 2006's First Impressions of Earth, the quintet's fourth album is a record that endeavours to extend the band's palette, dipping into electro-pop, ska and hazy exotica. Key to this is an act of distancing by Julian Casablancas, who was largely absent during recording, only returning to add vocals as the album drew to a close. Some space, also, has surely helped. Five years between albums is a luxury few groups can enjoy, and it's allowed time for some lone investigation. Two solo LPs by guitarist Albert Hammond Jr explored 1970s-tinged rock classicism, while Casablancas' 2009 album Phrazes for the Young adopted a smooth, synthy feel that occasionally manifests here, notably on the Duran Duran-esque Games.
The record's first side feels like an attempt to stake out as much ground as possible. The opening Machu Picchu, which lopes along on reggae bass and twitchy ska guitar is quite peculiar - not least due to Casablancas' lyrics, which seem to concern sleaze, streetwalkers and "a jacket made of meat". You're So Right channels Nirvana and Devo, latching monotone verses to sputtering electronic drums and scratchy surf guitar.
Two Kinds of Happiness, meanwhile, adopts a sort of bouffant-shaking 1980s gloss, all high production and emotional builds that demand a video set on a mountain top with wind machines set on full blast.
It should be noted, though, that while said descriptions spell out three radically different sounds, somehow each sounds rather a lot like The Strokes. No bad thing, as there remains something basically pleasing about what they do, a simple joy to the breezy interplay of Nikolai Fraiture's melodic bass work and Fabrizio Moretti's crisp, metronomic drums. But it also leads to some moments of business-as-usual: Gratisfaction is a stale attempt at barroom boogie, Casablancas trying out an unsteady Lou Reed drawl, while Metabolism retreads The Strokes' spikier moments, but struggles to connect.
It is not so much variety as flashes of charisma that provide the record's finest moments, though. Call Me Back is a beautiful, hazy ballad played on acoustic guitar and xylophone. Casablancas, meanwhile, retains a talent for a semi-cryptic lyric that sparks magic, like a half-heard line from a lover's tiff. "You're so gullible, but I don't mind/That's not the problem," he croons on Taken for a Fool.
The difficulty for The Strokes, you feel, is that they emerged fully formed, and everything that has come since feels like variations on a theme. Perhaps full reinvention lies beyond their grasp, but there's strength in their formula, and a pleasure in seeing them twist it out of shape.