Eight years after The Strokes made rock ‘n’ roll fun again with their seminal debut Is This It, front man Julian Casablancas brings a message from the future. Casablancas’ take on things to come is neon bright and awash in the blippy glow of strobe lights, and the good people of planet Earth live in houses with wall-to-wall dancefloors and foundations of thumping, searing, alien electro-pop synthesizers and joyous drum machines.
Phrazes For The Young is not a Strokes album, to be sure, but it’s also not as foreign and different as the hype surrounding it has made it out to be. Sure, Fab Moretti is replaced by a drum machine, but didn’t he always sort of sound like a drum machine anyway? And Nick Valensi’s jazz-tone guitar fluidity is recreated by synthesizers, but think of The Strokes’ 2006 single, 12:51 – he may as well have been a synthesizer all along.
What we’ve got here is a Stroke apart. While Casablancas is hardly the first of The Strokes to release a solo project during the band’s post-First Impressions Of Earth hiatus (Albert Hammond, Jr has put out two fantastic albums, and Nikolai Fraiture and Fab Moretti both have side bands), his perhaps rings truest to the sense of what The Strokes’ music was about when it came out of nowhere at the start of the century, and it may be most indicative of the direction the band is going.
Phrazes For The Young could be written off as a collection of B-Sides from First Impressions Of Earth channeled through a bizarre amalgamate of ’80s sci-fi and neo-bohemian hipster nihilism. But it’s more than that: Casablancas has made an important album that stands on its own.
Opener Out Of The Blue sounds enough like Last Nite in its tempo and attack to mislead the listener into a false sense of Strokes security with its rapid-fire bar chords – yes, there are guitars in the future, despite what you may have heard – and bouncy drum machine. But Casablancas isn’t just singing about a night out here (though there is plenty of that on Phrazes For The Young as well); he’s tackling his own mortality with a fuck-you sneer: “Yes, I know I’m going to hell in a leather jacket / At least I’ll be in another world while you’re pissing on my casket.”
Left & Right In The Dark opens with an Invisible Touch era Genesis synth riff, but eventually works its way into a surprisingly jangly Gin Blossoms guitar break. The synths remain impenetrably thick here, as on most of the album, but Casablancas’ deadpan delivery and hipster disaffection keep the proceedings nicely level-headed.
Lead single 11th Dimension opens with a dense array of computerised beats and an organ riff that could have been devised by E-Streeter Danny Federicci during Springsteen‘s Born In The U.S.A. days. Casablancas sings: “Forgive them even if they are not sorry/ All the vultures, bootleggers at the door waiting.” A far cry from the brash “Good try, we won’t take that shit,” of I Can’t Win. Has married life and thirtysomething-ness mellowed Casablancas out? Hardly, but there is evidence throughout the album of a man coming to grips with his bad attitude, as on the soul ballad, 4 Chords Of The Apocalypse: “It’s more important to be nice, I guess, than being wise.”
Ludlow St is a genuinely surprising and heartfelt 3/4 Western waltz – in the vein of Johnny Cash‘s I Love You Because – made for drunken two-stepping at a post-apocalyptic honky-tonk. Casablancas sings, perhaps, of the concessions of a life not lived alone: “While I surrendered my ego you fed yours / All my fantasies died when you said yours / I have dangled my pride to forget yours / Will my mind be at ease when you get yours?”
On the dark and brooding River Of Brakelights, Casablancas exorcises his demons and shouts warnings (“We might be in for a late night/ stuck in a river of brakelights”) and mumbles a “getting the hang of it, timing is everything” mantra over a baritone electronic sheen. Glass sounds like leftover synth strings from The Strokes’ Tell Me Anything mashed up with a bit of Psychedelic Furs guitar tone, slowed down to a swaying, lighter-raising arena space-jam. And on Tourist, Casablancas allows himself to display a bit of real emotion (“I feel like a lover lost in the ocean/ Feel like a teardrop streaming off your chin.”).
Overall, Phrazes For The Young is a successful departure from The Strokes’ straightforward brawn, but it’s not as different as it’s been billed. All the electronic noise and synthesized keyboard runs provide an interesting counterpoint for Casablancas’ deadpan vocals, but this solo album ultimately serves the purpose of opening the door for whatever futuristic visions The Strokes are planning to unleash on us when they finally return from hiatus.