Virtue is Casablancas’ strongest album in a decade.
“Sometimes it feels like the world is falling asleep/ How do you wake someone up from inside a dream?” questioned Julian Casablancas on what was then his most overtly political song, the Strokes’ “Ize of the World.” Its parent album, First Impressions of Earth, and its shambolic rumble would prove to be an unlikely glimpse into his future musical endeavors. Much like the Voidz’s first album, Tyranny, Casablancas doesn’t hold back his pointed critiques of our bleak modern-day America. However, instead of focusing on the abrasive rush of punk anger and spacey prog that powered their debut’s finest moments, Virtue shifts through a myriad of genres with surprising ease.
As such, the album adds some much-needed musical levity to combat Tyranny’s heaviosity. Songs like lead single “Leave It in My Dreams” and “Wink” sound like warped Strokes songs, their pleasant chord progressions constantly thrown for a loop via dissonant guitar solos, drums filtered down to a bone-crushing rumble and Casablancas’ vocals that leap between his signature croon and robotic Vocaloid filters. “I was playing it too safe/ Playing it too safe is dangerous,” frets Casablancas on “Wink” but, luckily, Virtue is anything but safe.
“QYURRYUS” is the first of many curveballs, its gurgling synth bassline propping up indecipherable vocals from Casablancas that shoot up to the highest reaches of his range in a chant-like fashion before transforming into Kanye-esque Auto-Tune and Vincent Price-inspired narration. It’s all over the place—wailing guitars breaking into a Death By Audio fuzz duel and spooky Halloween harpsichords —but beneath all the bluster of the self-described “Cyber-Arabic-Prison-Jazz” is one of Casablancas’ catchiest singles since the earliest days of the Strokes.
Despite Virtue’s somewhat disparate and left-field stylistic choices, each song is solidly grounded with intelligent and melodically strong songwriting. Casablancas’ claim that the album is their attempt at reaching out to the mainstream doesn’t seem entirely based in reality, but this surely feels like a more realized approach to their musical magpie tendencies. Case in point is fourth single “All Wordz Are Made Up,” a groovy number constantly on the verge of bursting full of ‘80s synths and beatbox-distorted beats which is almost Beck-like in its ability to shamble around in such a casually cool fashion.
However, that isn’t to say the Voidz have entirely abandoned their gritty punk-metal approach. “Pyramid of Bones”’s blown-speaker riffage and thunderous head-banging interludes are thrillingly abrupt, though “One of the Ones” feels too much like a reheated Tyranny leftover without any of that album’s bite. “We’re Where We Were” mines that same aggression falling into a dance-punk rhythm as Casablancas’ vocals trip over each other, though it’s clichéd lyrical comparisons to Germany circa-1939 feel a little too simple and on the nose for Casablancas.
Running throughout is a cyberpunk aesthetic that holds all of these disparate sounds together, like catching a mix of distorted radio signals from a future dystopian wasteland. “AlieNNatioN” cruises on a smooth Dr. Dre-esque beat, though its laidback attitude is at odds with Casablancas’ decidedly blunt lyrics that question “murder in the name of officer security,” until he eventually admits that “I’ve been sipping on the blood of sweet success/ Before history punishes us for it.”
There are no cosmic odysseys like “Human Sadness,” though “Pointlessness” strikes a similar chord with its despondent and moody crawl into the darkness, as does Think Before You Drink, a radical reworking of virtual unknown Michael Cassidy and his Motown-esque song into a warbly country ballad with a new melody reminiscent of Strokes demo “I’ll Try Anything Once.” Your judgment of this album, perhaps, depends on how positively or negatively you view the world— Casablancas isn’t too pleased.
That isn’t to say there isn’t any fun to be had in the Voidz’s grim reality—“My Friend the Walls” seamlessly transforms from post-punk verse to A Flock of Seagulls chorus. It’s all as bizarre as it sounds, though poppier cuts like the slinky “Pink Ocean” and dreamy waft of “Lazy Boy” successfully merge melodic bliss with off-the-wall arrangements that have enough depth to warrant repeated listens. In all of its shabby glory, Virtue is Casablancas’ strongest album in a decade.