Rarely has the burden of expectation weighed so heavily as it does on the Strokes' second album. Room on Fire
is an overwhelmingly anxious record, where the band's dilemmas are there for everyone to hear: should they make another record as concise as Is This It
? Will they be able to capitalise on their wiry winning formula but avoid exhausting it? And can Julian Casablancas be convincingly offhand when we now know how much effort he makes to sound so disinterested? As a result, Room on Fire
isn't an entirely successful album, but it's certainly a compelling one--the testament of five handsomely talented men struggling to work out what should happen next. At worst, songs like "You Talk Way Too Much" are paranoid retreads where the Strokes, having minted such a precise and appealing sound, seem doomed to repeat it in progressively more joyless ways.
But there are moments when Casablancas nudges his band into new, promising directions. "12:51" seems malnourished on first listen, but its sulky, understated twists soon turn out to be memorable. "Reptilia", meanwhile, showcases the fabulous--and teasingly underexploited--guitar playing of Albert Hammond and Nick Valensi, being a collection of chiming riffs and tumbling solos that suggest the Strokes should allow themselves the freedom to rock more often. Oh, and "Under Control" is a dream--specifically, one where the Smiths are playing "Tracks of My Tears". Best think of Room on Fire, then, as an album where the Strokes plot their escape from the predictable, but are a little too cautious to make a proper getaway. Courage, gentlemen. --John Mulvey