Typically, albums these days are launched with maximum exposure in mind; talk shows are booked, singles are offered as free downloads, and stylish, expensive videos are showcased on every music blog, website, and TV channel. But the Strokes, this time at least, have a chosen a different path. Their latest visual offering, which appeared out of the blue last Friday, is interesting for several reasons. First of all, it's not a video as such, but a montage; clips and scenes from their early 2000s heyday showing five friends riding a colossal wave of globetrotting acclaim. They goof around, mug for the camera, and play with Lou Reed; apt vignettes of the breezy youth and cocksure swagger that had them leading the post punk revival and atop many a cool list.

Secondly, and perhaps most tellingly, it meant they didn't have to convene for a shoot. Given the dead-eyed lethargy of their last comeback video, 2011's 'Under Cover of Darkness' – in which they barely look at each other and display all the enthusiasm of a hungry toddler being dragged around a museum – it's no surprise they didn't have the stomach for numerous production meetings and the boredom between takes. Coupled with all the sniping and hostility that surfaced around Angles release, it's easy to conclude that all is still not well in the camp, with some rifts yet to heal. They don't even have plans to tour in place, although anyone who witnessed them sleepwalk through a number of headline festival slots last summer might argue that's no great loss.

So where exactly does that leave them? They may be trying to convince us, or even themselves, of former glories, but it doesn't come across on Come Down Machine, a muddled and confused album that sounds less like a singular vision and more like a compromised jumble of ideas. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture recently claimed that this time they actually did record together as a five piece, but while there's almost nothing quite as jarringly odd and disappointing as 'You're So Right' or 'Metabolism' here, you still get the feeling that they're flailing around for inspiration; reluctant to call time on the sounds and styles that best fit the band, yet unable to fully embrace the future.

The focus here is squarely on the 80s, but it's not electro-pop or Casablancas' love of synths that come to the fore; rather, an infatuation with the rhythm of disco and funk ooze from its very core, the tattered roughness of Television and the Velvet Underground replaced by the glossy sheen of Blondie. These colours are nailed to the mast early; opener 'Tap Out' puts the bustling groove of Michael Jackson's 'Don't Stop Till You Get Enough' under relaxed, palm-muted guitar and Miami Vice solos – a tone sprinkled liberally throughout – while 'Welcome to Japan's sexy, casual loucheness is pure Studio 54, even down to period details like the descending synth-cheeps of the chorus.

The deeper you dive, the clearer that era's influence becomes; sadly, its application also becomes more wayward. Aside from the A-Ha hook and Morten Harket falsetto of 'One Way Trigger' – disturbing enough on its own – it's joined by two attempts at weepy MOR ballads; the soft, Mellotron loops of the title track, and 'Changes', a shimmering, camp, disco snooze that belongs to Valentines Day at the local rollerdrome. The former recalls First Impressions 'Ask Me Anything' and sees Casablancas softly cooing in the background before breaking down into fairground carousel music, while the latter's phased synths and chiming guitars can't save it from drowning in schmaltz and boredom.

Weirdest still is last track 'Call It Fate, Call It Karma', a grainy, crackling mix of slowed down piano, 40s jazz guitar, and a faintly Cuban rhythm. Sounding more like Willis Earl Beal than the band who penned 'Last Nite', it's about as far from their roots as it's possible to be. That it shares an album with 'All the Time' – a genuine attempt to capture that 'Classic Strokes' sound, but one shorn of the urgency and energy that so defined their early years – is indicative of Comedown's failings; a scattergun approach of ideas and motifs, each one tried and discarded as they root around their musical archive in search of something that fits.

Through all this, Casablancas is as detached as ever, only this time he's swapped general philosophical musings for homing in on relationships, love and sex; normally a heady and febrile topic for lyricists, but in his hands, reduced to a clumsy set of simplistic, teenage platitudes. Perhaps his words are a metaphor for inter-band relations, directed at fans, or some personal torment we're yet to hear about. Whoever he's addressing, it's clear there are issues; we get "You ask me to stay / But there's a million reasons to leave" - "Baby, show me where to go / Some things I don't wanna know" - "I'll take my chances alone / I won't wait up for you anymore" - and "I waited on you / But now I don't."

It's depressing stuff, made all the more so by the glorious brilliance of the two tracks that roll back the years; '50/50's ferociously intense, two-and-a-half minute blast of garage rock, its punk roots and focus the perfect backdrop for Casablancas at his sneering, distorted best – "I will say / Don't judge me" – and 'Welcome to Japan', exactly the sort of retro sounding futurism that could properly kick-start a renaissance. Both shine through the gloom and are maddeningly addictive but, as with Angles, they serve merely to provide temporary relief amidst the mediocrity and frustration on display.

Have they simply run out of ideas? It's hard to reach any other conclusion, but then many things about this album leave you scratching your head; the snippet of studio laughter at the end of 'Slow Animals', the RCA logo dominating the cover, the total lack of new photos. Hell, even the press release was barely two paragraphs long. Chemistry can't be faked and, just like two years ago, is very much conspicuous by its absence. If this is all they can muster, their future looks anything but bright, and the most damning indictment is that they sound bored by the effort. And for those who think they were right to abandon their musical past, or that indie garage rock has nothing left to offer, bear in mind there is a young New York band with the Midas touch currently being lauded for a bewitching and eye-catching mix of retro 70s influences; Parquet Courts. That the Strokes can now be considered the tired establishment against which everyone else is measured should tell you pretty much everything you need to know.