Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Julian Casablancas: Phrazes for the Young

Julian Casablancas
Phrazes for the Young

From the beginning: I read a review of Is This It, which my father handed me. It said, “put on the Strokes. Bounce” and I did. I saw the band live at the Avalon in Boston that year; Julian Casablancas, their lead singer, had dirty, long hair and a leather jacket. The girls were in love. There were too many bands called “The [somethings]” (White Stripes, Hives…) that year. Walking from the Charles River up to the Quad in 2003, I listened to Room on Fire with my friend Will, and he convinced me it was better than the original. I lost interest. I moved to New York, where there were many other rock bands with lead singers in leather jackets. Bounce gave way to bombast, then to whispered finger-picking, then to haunted electro dreams. The efforts of various members of the band, on their own, to recreate the Strokes moment seemed admirable, but a little thin. Apart from a few songs, I didn’t take much interest. I saw the drummer Fabrizio Moretti with Drew Barrymore at a bar near Union Square. My friends didn’t believe it was them; Moretti said “it’s not me”. Did they release a third album? I moved away from New York.

Then, after what seemed like forever, “11th Dimension” hit the internet. It was a rekindling, but in a fresh, stimulating way. Casablancas + synths came out not formulaic, but bracing and thrilling. The pep of the consonants “Your faith has got to be greater than your fear” and the slurred, drunken chorus. There were some clues this was going to be good: Casablancas had released the one-off collaboration with Santigold and Pharrell for Converse, “My Drive Thru”, and had appeared on the Sparklehorse/Danger Mouse album from this year — both solid singles, lent an air of rock star cool by the frontman and his yes, leather jacket.

Turns out the rest of Phrazes for the Young, Casablancas’ finally-released solo debut, is just as good as that first taste. “Out of the Blue”, the opening track, might be as good as anything off Is This It, and just as bracingly cathartic. The song has that unexpected melodic refrain that’s half-hidden and therefore twice as revelatory; it’ll be quoted in most every review of the album, and you’ll be singing along — don’t take my word, listen for yourself. But despite the similarities, it’s not a Strokes song, and sets up the natural departure represented by the rest of the album. Eschewing constant guitar bounce, Casablancas develops his idea over five minutes with the emergence of an arpeggic countermelody, and those synths pinging over the top of the refrain. These are tropes returned to again and again on Phrazes for the Young: curiosity and extension.

Casablancas’ compositional curiosity could have turned into a mess of poorly-linked styles and ideas, but his static-flecked croon holds it together. There are only eight songs on this album, but they each reach the five minute mark, just about, and are quick to slip between styles and feelings. Listening to the album straight through you won’t be immediately impressed by how different “Left & Right in the Dark” is from “River of Brakelights”, say; but the Strokes’ main man has corralled all his musical vocabulary into one forceful montage here. From soul and country to scuzzy guitar rock to synth-pop, Phrazes for the Young’s songs trip through their creator’s head with a nonchalant expertise.

There’s much to discover about this album that escapes first notice – from the gorgeous, Bibio-esque groove of “Tourist” to the odd, arresting screech that opens “Ludlow St.” (before it settles into its country-tinged balladry). And apart from the one misstep, the frantic and sodden “River of Brakelights” (which sounds like Muse without the clean stadium-ready texture), you’ll want to return to these complex songs again and again searching for these discoveries.

From here on: Who knows? With a new Strokes album looking less likely by the day, I’m thankful for this — turns out Casablancas solo is just as good. If I move back to New York, and walk some chaotic night through the Lower East Side, if I need a guide past ‘the yuppies’ and into that upper echelon of cool — this is it.

RATING 8 / 10