Poor First Impressions of Earth has always held a special place in my heart. Sure, it's a bit of a fucking mess for a good third of its whopping 52 minute runtime, but at least it's compellingly messy.
This album stands in a strange place for the Strokes, because it doesn't really sound like anything that came before it in their discography, or like anything from the two records that came after it. It has clearer and more modern production than Is This It or Room on Fire - especially in the vocals - but it doesn't have the 80's synth flourishes and erratic genre experiments that have come to define Angles and Comedown Machine. In addition, First Impressions of Earth is much longer than anything else in their discography, and the music and lyrics feel sometimes grim, other times bombastic, and even quite depressing at some points.
It is a common observation that from You Only Live Once through Vision of Division, this album is actually very strong, bold, and energetic. Each one of these songs is able to take the traditional Strokes song and expand its horizons through better production, more complex song structures, and tight and explosive performances by all five band members. Personally, I believe that any one of these six songs could qualify as top tier Strokes songs, and should really belong in the Strokes Hall of Fame along with other classics like The End Has No End or Someday. However, it is an even more common observation that after these six songs, First Impressions of Earth takes a gruesome and irredeemable nosedive that it never is truly able to recover from. I can agree with this, but only to a certain extent.
For anyone listening to this album for the first time, I'm sure that Ask Me Anything comes off as a huge left turn for anyone who is already familiar with the earlier portion of the Strokes discography. Julian Casablancas spends 3 minutes sloppily vocalizing against a cheesy mellotron waltz, and yes, it is here that he drops the now legendary "I've got nothing to say" line ad nauseam, which pretty much singlehandedly destroyed any chance that this album had at critical success. The bridge on this song is actually really beautiful though, and it never gets credit for that. If there is any major aspect that shoots this song in the foot - as well as many others on this very same album - it's the lyrics and vocals.
For example, the incredibly patchy middle section from Killing Lies to 15 Minutes, which essentially epitomizes the "hit or miss" phenomenon. Often times, these songs range from "incredible expansion of the Strokes sound without sacrificing their former strengths" to a complete mess that makes you ponder why some of these songs (or at least sections of them...) weren't just cut from the album tracklisting altogether. 15 Minutes, despite the presence of some questionable Casablancasisms, is a gorgeous waltz in its first half (musically speaking, not lyrically). However, as soon as the tempo increases and Casablancas increases his Casablancasisms by tenfold, the song loses track of itself and becomes a mess. Not to mention the extremely obnoxious and unnecessary outro section with Julian Casablancas literally screaming at the top of his lungs about how many notes it takes to make a scale (it's dependent on what country you live in!). Then, on the other end of the spectrum we have Killing Lies, which basically repeats itself into oblivion with not a single change in chord progression across its entire runtime. And Fear of Sleep? Yuck.
But then, we miraculously rise out of the clusterfuck of heavy progressive indie rock sludge to be greeted with some of the very best songs in the Strokes catalog, period. Although it is not easy competition, Ize of the World really does manage to take the cake for the best guitar solo in any Strokes song. Don't even think about saying You're So Right. Red Light continues the lasting tradition of great closers on every Strokes album, with cheerily bouncing rhythms and beautiful guitar and vocal melodies safely bringing First Impressions of Earth to a comfortable close.
So, was it really that bad? If anything, the album suffers from quality control and lazy track placement. Loading fourteen songs onto a Strokes album was never going to be a good idea, and I'm not really sure as to how it ended up happening anyways. Cut out Ask Me Anything, Killing Lies, Fear of Sleep and 15 Minutes, and you'd have a concise and punchy Strokes record that would not only match their first two albums in quality, but possibly even rise above them.