Phrazes for the Young
For some, a solo album’s a space for artists to fully express the interests that form a portion of their band’s identity (Thom Yorke, Jenny Lewis). For others, the lead singer has outgrown the rest of the band (Peter Gabriel, Gwen Stefani). Or maybe the band’s just fallen apart and a guy’s gotta work/pay for drugs (Jarvis Cocker, Pete Doherty–respectively).
Then there’s Julian Casablancas, frontman of one-time critical darlings the Strokes, whom everyone accused of losing all that 2001 Is This It steam by 2006’s First Impressions of Earth (which in retrospect, is a solid album). Why a solo effort from Julian? He probably needed to let that band air out for a few years.
Phrazes for the Young begins with “Out of the Blue,” an energetic opener that either fakes out the listener or eases them into the album by recreating the energy and attitude of a classic Strokes song (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) but drowned in synth. Soon the synth and electro beat gradually take over with “Left & Right in the Dark” and by “11th Dimension,” it feels like Phrazes for the Young is setting up to be a great dance-pop album. “11th Dimension” is the apex of this phase, a song that depends on its synth hook and proving endlessly danceable in that Passion Pit sort of way- where the danciness overshadows the self-conscious lyrics. If this becomes a crossover hit in the wake of Lady Gaga, I wouldn’t be surprised.
By the middle of the album, it abruptly turns into a slow dance with some questionably down-tempo genre experimentation. “4 Chords of the Apocalypse” has Julian Casablancas in Slow Train Coming mode, which should be illegal. “Ludlow St.” is less irritating with some choice lines (Will my mind be at ease/ When you get yours?) but ultimately feels like a country pastiche (Everything seems to go wrong when I start drinkin’). Placed together in the middle of the record, they serve as a warning to listeners disappointed with the opening tracks: “Don’t complain. The record could have sounded like this.”
Darkness falls over the unconventional indie pop third act of Phrazes for the Young, condensing Bowie’s Earthling phase into three tracks with the rapid-fire Bloc Party-like “River of Breaklights,” the ballad “Glass” and the sludgy “Tourist.” The electro continues to run through this section, but it’s all much more subtle than in the first third of the album. Ultimately, these tracks feel like maybe a bit more of what one would have expected from a Julian Casablancas solo effort.
Grouping similar songs together pays off, as it makes Phrazes for the Young seem deliberately structured instead of erratic, like he decided to do three types of solo records in one go. While a promising solo debut, it feels like Casablancas was performing a trial run for the next record in the same way that his guest vocals on the Lonely Island’s “Boombox” felt like a trial run for this album. After Phrazes of the Young, one wonders which route he will take: dance-pop, left-field audience alienation or expected unconventionality. Who knows? He might actually find Jesus.