When Julian Casablancas says the first record he really got into was The Doors, you gotta believe him. After all, his tenor, style , and “whatever, fuck it” mentality all owes itself to Jim Morrison. Some might argue and throw in names like Lou Reed, especially in relation to The Strokes’ 2001 debut Is This It, but really, Casablancas’ swagger and drunken stupor bring back the “glory days” of the late L.A. crooner — though, you’d hardly recognize this with his (former?) New York bandmates.
However, on Phrazes for the Young, there’s a new Casablancas at face value, one that’s hardly the hip New Yorker we’ve come to love and understand. Instead, he’s adventurous, willing to leave the microphone stand and boldly take risks that seemed all too dangerous or bewildering for The Strokes. There’s decadent synths (“11th Dimension”), nu-country dabbling (“Ludlow St.”), and surreal atmospheres (“Glass”) that flesh out one hell of a solo debut. If anything, it just goes to show that the past four years since 2006’s First Impressions of Earth have hardly been spent vacationing.
Or, maybe they have been. After all, Casablancas seems like he’s had some time to reflect here. He’s less confused and more assured. On the jogging opener, “Out Of The Blue”, he spouts out various declarations that start out depressing (“Somewhere along the way/My hopefulness turned to sadness”) and evolve into clever tongue-in-cheek sayings (“Yes I know I’m going to hell in a leather jacket”). The funny thing is, it’s all so damn punchy and upbeat that you’d never know he was actually somewhat mad. At who? Anyone’s guess, though fans and critics will no doubt point to his acclaimed troupe. Let’s hope not, though — especially with one liners like, “Least I’ll be in another world/While you’re pissing on my casket.” Ouch.
So, what’s it sound like? In some respects, it’s The Strokes enjoying the ’80s. “Left & Right In The Dark” rides on some guitar lines that are equal parts Albert Hammond, Jr. and Flock of Seagulls, while current single “11th Dimension” reworks David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” only with synthesizers and electronic drums. It’s less rock and more pop, but it still hits the heart and the soul in every way The Strokes ever did. Just try and imagine the group embracing that sound they sort of gave up on with past single “12:51” (off of 2003’s Room on Fire). Remember how weird it sounded to hear the NYC boys embrace the sounds of The Cars? Yeah, that didn’t last too long, but apparently Casablancas dug it enough.
But it’s not just the ’80s he’s after. It’s everything. A perfect example is “4 Chords Of The Apocalypse”. When Casablancas belts out lines like “So be with anyone you want/It’s alright with me,” he’s got the rasp of Morrison, but the mentality of even older icons like Roy Orbison. The instrumentation crosses time frames, too. The electronic drums stick in the Reagan era, while the guitar melodies shift everywhere, from ’50s ballads to ’70s arena rock anthems. The Joe Cocker-esque organ just glues it together.
No one will argue that Casablancas sounds best when the beat’s fresh and poppy. When it’s fast, however, the guy’s on fire. “Hard to Explain”? “Ize of the World”? “I Can’t Win?” All classics. The same applies here. On “River of Brakelights”, Casablancas’ vocals surf on rapid-fire drum beats and spiraling guitar work. As it climbs and climbs, his voice evolves with it, eventually cascading into this wonderful breakdown at the end (“Is that what we want?/Is everything shot?/Is that what you ask for?/’Cause that’s what we got”) that just flat out hugs you. It’s a track like this that should leave Strokes fans little to worry about should the band opt to go their separate ways.
Some travels work, some struggle to leave an imprint — typically the slow numbers. “Ludlow St.”, while a lush, modern country stroll, is a tad too long. In fact, the latter half comes off like a broken loop. On the other hand, “Glass” is dreamy, soothing, and reflective, with keyboard notes that float higher and higher. The difference here, though, is that it achieves a perfect image to return to again and again. And vocally, Casablancas is at his prime. His throaty, heartfelt lyrics recall early Morrison (“The Crystal Ship”, namely) with psychedelic references (“Tears will swallow you”) and forewarning (“Bulletproof – You aren’t in any trouble now”).
This is a big step for a guy who’s always been seen as “the frontman.” However, Phrazes for the Young changes all of that. Not only does it cement Casablancas’ as the driving force behind The Strokes, it presents him as the innovator: the guy willing to take chances. So, at the end, when he says that he might “Feel like a tourist out in the desert,” he should find solace in knowing that he’ll hardly be alone. Not if this album’s any indication of what’s to come. Because if anyone’s ever listened to Is This It and focused on the small details, like say the additional “She says…” during the second bridge of “Hard to Explain”, they’re bound to enjoy the emotional impulses here. Besides, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be asking for directions from anyone anytime soon. And we’re totally okay with that now.
Essential Tracks: “11th Dimension”, “Out of the Blue”, and “River of Brakelights”