Album review: Julian Casablancas – ‘Phrazes For The Young’

It may be a little short, but it's oh so sweet

“Somewhere along the way, my hopefulness turned to sadness/ Somewhere along the way, my sadness turned to bitterness…”

Suffice to say, the first two lines that slur out of the speakers after pressing ‘play’ on ‘Phrazes For The Young’ will be instant red flags to any Strokes fan combing [a]Julian Casablancas[/a]’ solo debut for portents of doom. As the verse progresses, his bitterness then leads to anger, his anger inextricably to vengeance and his vengeance – oddly enough – to an unabashedly euphoric, Paul Simon-esque mardi-gras gallop of a chorus that, like a lot of things about this album, you’ll never see coming.

After four troubling years of collective inactivity, individual Strokes have all of a sudden been going rogue left, right and centre: Fab Moretti and Nikolai Fraiture are both off working on their respective side-projects [a]Little Joy[/a] and [a]Nickel Eye[/a], while [a]Albert Hammond Jr[/a]’s solo albums have found him a niche as a sort of lo-fi Albert Hammond Sr.

Casablancas, on the other hand, seemed content to lay low, occasionally lending vocals to one-off collaborations with [a]Pharrell[/a] and [a]Danger Mouse[/a], and offering frustratingly ambiguous Strokes album updates such as, “We’re pretty much ready to go, but at the same time we don’t want to rush anything.” And then, somewhere along the way, ‘Phrazes For The Young’ was born, complicating matters further still.

Recorded under the radar with producer Jason Lader and [a]Bright Eyes[/a] collaborator Mike Mogis, it’s a strange little album, just eight songs long but deceptively dense with ideas. Certain parts of it are unmistakably the work of the man who wrote ‘Is This It’, certain others you’d swear were anything but, and one part in particular – the inspired ‘Ludlow St’ – is a bawdy, boozy waltz through the Lower East Side locale that’s quite simply stark raving.  

After aforementioned opener ‘Out Of The Blue’ establishes that all bets are off with a joyous shrug of the shoulders and Casablancas’ cathartic proclamation that “Yes, I know I’m going to hell in a leather jacket/But at least I’ll be in another world while you’re pissing on my casket”, things take a darker turn on ‘River Of Brake Lights’. Sharing the ominous, industrial vibe of ‘Reptilia’, its latticed web of interweaving guitars mark it out as the most obviously Strokesy song on here, though it still takes a few listens to draw you in. 

These are the songs Casablancas apparently felt wouldn’t work for The Strokes, although on ‘4 Chords Of The Apocalypse’ he does seem to take the smoky, ’60s-soul aesthetic he briefly explored on 2003’s ‘Under Control’ and runs with it, piling on drama and bombastic production where before there would have been rough-hewn garage-rock minimalism.

The halogenic synth-pop swagger he employs on ‘11th Dimension’ and ‘Left And Right In The Dark’, meanwhile, sugar-coats some interesting lyrical themes. The former’s pragmatic, post-Obama take on America (“Where cities come to hate each other in the name of sport” and “Your faith has got to be greater than your fear”) in particular feels cheekily subversive, but best by far is ‘Ludlow St’. Not only does it take the Native American history of New York and turn it into a metaphor for the area’s yuppie invasion, it’s delivered

in the form of a drunken country and western croon. And as a love song to the Lower East Side, it even manages to be quite touching.

Events do feel rather abruptly curtailed by the fade of ‘Tourist’’s minor-key march, and you’re left wishing that Casablancas had a few more of these square-peg songs lying around. In fact you feel – perhaps appropriately for an album announced by a teaser trailer – a bit cliff-hung. Our appetite is whetted. Let’s have part two quickly, please.

Barry Nicolson

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Click here to get your copy of Julian Casablancas’ ‘Phrazes For The Young’ from the Rough Trade shop.

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