Second albums are always considered to be difficult; history has shown that following up a widely regarded debut can daunting and doesn’t always work out.
Room On Fire often gets tarnished with the disappointing second album label and since its release the music media have acted like it was a failure. If you look at reviews though at the time then the majority were actually glowing. Q Magazine gave it 5 stars ‘it’s like Is This It but more emotional, more colourful, slightly better‘ NME (9 out of 10) said “‘Room On Fire’ is a refining and tinkering with The Strokes sound, a carefully calibrated attempt not to fuck up too early in the face of untold temptations” and Rolling Stone declared that “In the face of hysterical expectation, the Strokes have resisted the temptation to hit the brakes, grow up and screw around with a sound that doesn’t need fixing — yet” (All reviews from Metacritic)
So whilst it is really easy to for the media to turn on the record when the inevitable backlash began its worth noting that people actually genuinely liked it.
As for my own feelings on the album well like every record by The Strokes Room On Fire holds a special place in my heart. If Is This It represented my care free student days then its follow up was the album that got me through some serious post-University blues. 11 tracks that showed Julian Casablancas maturing as a writer, and a band that were still having a lot of fun.
Room On Fire often feels like two different records, you have the songs that were written early on and debuted when The Strokes were still promoting Is This It in early 2002. These tracks like Meet Me In The Bathroom, Between Love & Hate, The Way It Is and You Talk Way Too Much sound much more like the Is This It era. Then you have the rest of the album which was written towards the end of 2002 and throughout early 2003. It is with these songs that there is a noticeable change in the music, and for me hearing Reptilia for the first time or Under Control really convinced me that I had sold my musical soul to the right band.
The Strokes weren’t just a one album wonder, they were to be a band I knew I would follow for a very long time.
What Ever Happened?is my favourite opening track by the band, I love the guitar solo but also has some of Julian’s best lyrics. Reptilia is probably the most famous track after Last Nite due in part to being used in Guitar Hero, it is the song that really compels the listener to either dance like crazy or kick something really hard. Maybe that is just me but I always see it as such an exhilarating track with this raw intensity. 45 seconds into Automatic Stop and you get that guitar solo, all I ever need from a Strokes song is a really great guitar solo and Julian laying down some harsh truths with lines such as “I’m not your friend I never was“. Even though 12:51was a single I feel like it is a bit of a underrated song. Guitars made to sound like keyboards, a video inspired by Tron and lyrics about being young. Overall a really short but sweet track.
The next 3 songs in the form of You Talk Way Too Much, Between Love and Hate and Meet Me In The Bathroommakes a nice middle section to Room On Fire. Like I said they have that earlier Is This It sound to them and over the course of the years are rarely played live but when Julian croons “Don’t worry about it, honey” everything feels right with the world.
I could probably write long essays about Under Controland how it is a lost classic that sounds like its come from the 1960s. The closest the band has come to writing a soul song in many ways. It is beautiful, it is wonderful. I change my favourite song by The Strokes all the time but Under Control is always in the Top 5. I was so happy when they played it on their comeback tour in 2010 and I hope it stays part of their set when they tour again. This song should have been a single if only so the wider public would be aware that such a track exists.
Even though its often hard to know what Julian’s lyrics are about a lot of Room On Fire seems to be about his break up with his long term girlfriend during the making of the record,The Way It Is is yet another song on the album about a broken relationship “I’m sick of you and that’s the way it is” he declares. The End Has No End has a killer solo, some brilliant lyrics and really is one heck of a track.
Room On Fire ends with the ridiculously catchy I Can’t Win, The Strokes always know how to end a record.
Room On Fire may not have had the instant impact that Is This It had but for many Strokes fans I know it was actually the first album by the band they heard and I think that is one of the reasons is more loved by the fans than the critics these days. Its hard not to have a special bond to the first Strokes album you heard.
For me it wasn’t my first but like I said it helped me through a rough personal time and so when I think about Room On Fire I think about dark winter nights and a horrible deep depression but I also think about how listening to that album gave me a tiny bit of hope every day. How I fell in love with The Strokes more than I had even two years previously.
Thank you Room On Fire for being the comfort I needed ten years ago and for being a whole lot of fun ever since.