Earlier this year, Vulture published an in-depth Q&A with Julian Casablancas. The Strokes frontman explained that the title for the band’s 2003 sophomore record, Room on Fire, “is not referring to a dance party. It’s referring to the state of things.” It’s difficult to think of Room on Fire as an overtly political album. For the most part, its 11 tracks seem to center on the fleetingness of youth, fame, and difficult relationships, but, because of the lyrics’ simplicity, Room on Fire can transform itself depending on perspective. It’s partially why it’s still such a rewarding listen 15 years later.
Whether the album is politically outspoken or not isn’t its defining factor. The impact of Room on Fire helped establish The Strokes as an influence within the indie rock community. Their 2001 debut, Is This It, was their outstanding entry point, and Room on Fire cemented them as a representation of early 2000s guitar-band revivalism. It feels overlooked, especially compared to Is This It, but the album remains a pivotal evolutionary step for one of the most important bands in indie rock.
When the New York quintet released the follow-up to their widely acclaimed debut, critics enjoyed the album but deemed it a carbon copy of its predecessor. However, while the two sound similar, Room on Fire isn’t an unimaginative reiteration of Is This It. It has an identity of its own, and this identity is most visible in its songwriting. Guitarist Nick Valensi is essential, contributing textures that were then new to the band, such as The Cars-esque synth tones on “12:51” and “The End Has No End”. The second track and lead single, “Reptilia”, is perhaps his strongest moment on the record. He breaks into an impressive solo during the bridge, and the song features one of the most memorable hooks in The Strokes’ career.
The band’s expedition into unexplored territory laid out the blueprints for what would become 2006’s First Impressions of Earth and 2011’s Angles. Room on Fire is certainly liminal in that regard, serving as a transitory period between stylistic eras. They hold on to the distorted garage rock of their debut while leaving room for experimentation. It would have been interesting to hear what original producer Nigel Godrich, known for his work with Radiohead, would have pushed the band toward, but Gordon Raphael helped The Strokes maintain the post-punk tendencies fans know them for.
Room on Fire sets itself at a rapid pace, refusing to unnecessarily halt itself when its tracks are an incessant burst of energy. As soon as the palm-muted guitars and syncopated drums start off “What Ever Happened?”, the band unabashedly moves forward and never stops, even briefly. It’s one of the reasons why this record feels so invigorating. Its congruity and tenacity are emblematic of The Strokes themselves. “Please don’t slow me down,” Casablancas sings on “Reptilia”, which at once sounds like a plea and a demand. Drummer Fabrizio Moretti is integral to its pacing, too, never using his metronomic beats for showmanship but instead as a base for the band to return to.
Casablancas’ lyrics aren’t the strongest moments of the record, but they’re still worth considering in the album’s context. Most songs revolve around heartbreak and love while others discuss fame and attention. The former topic has a small handful of platitudes, such as the it’s-not-you-it’s-me mentality of “Under Control,” but these never make Room on Fire an unenjoyable listen, and most of its love-themed tracks are, indeed, heartbreaking.
The fame that originated from Is This It is also central. Casablancas isn’t pleased with the recognition. Many music publications pronounced The Strokes as the heroes of the rock revival, but Casablancas was more interested in making music on his own terms. “I wanna be forgotten,” he sings on opener “What Ever Happened?” He shrugs off the praise in “I Can’t Win”, singing: “Good try, we don’t like it.”
Room on Fire does just what Casablancas intended it to: exist on its own terms. Although it’s important to consider what came before and after it, it’s an album with a character distinct from The Strokes’ other releases. It helped strengthen the guitar-rock movement of its decade, and it’s a feat that shouldn’t go unacknowledged.
Essential Tracks: “What Ever Happened?”, “Reptilia”, and “The End Has No End”