When Julian Casablancas returned with his second non-Strokes record in 2014 (The Voidz‘s ‘Tyranny’) the world seemed bemused by the path he was taking. His 2009 solo album ‘Phrazes For The Young’ was a gleaming sci-fi pop masterpiece and The Strokes were, well, The Strokes. It might feel comfortable terming The Voidz’s debut as a “classic Julian” move now, but after all that it felt like a massive curveball – one full of dystopian chaos and sonic challenges.
‘Virtue’ is an easier listen – slightly. Not so much so that The Voidz lose their eccentric inventor touch, but just enough that there are a handful of pop-leaning moments present among the boundary-pushing ones. The frontman told Billboard recently they’d made the album more people-friendly because they “want to be able to afford to keep doing [The Voidz]” – but if there was even the tiniest hint of cynicism at the root of the record, it doesn’t show.
Opener ‘Leave It In My Dreams’ is the brightest, most straightforward song here. Jeremy “Beardo” Gritter and Amir Yaghmai’s guitars are surfy and bronzed, while their leader sighs “I broke up with Edison/I’ve had enough” like a man craving the sanctuary of darkness. ‘Wink’ smothers its pop hooks in nasty, crunching drums that sound like you’re listening through a tin-can telephone, and ‘All Wordz Are Made Up’ brings together cowbell, extreme auto-tune, and Daft Punk synths. It’s like Julian told NME last year: ‘Virtue’ is “more sleek and polished, but it’s still futuristic prison jazz” – and that’s an excellent thing.
Making things less testing musically doesn’t mean these misfits have dumbed down their lyrical content. Like ‘Tyranny’, this album is focused on the political. On the nightmarish ‘Black Hole’, Julian spits: “Well it feels good going down the drain” in what feels like a comment on the state of America in the Trump era, but it’s the snotty punk of ‘We’re Where We Were’ that hits like a sledgehammer. It opens: “New holocaust happening/What, are you blind?/You’re in Germany now/1939.” It’s not exactly subtle, but then there probably isn’t time for that when the return of fascism’s reign feels so real and possible.
The Voidz and Julian might not be the most predictable band to pin down, but there are at least some things that we’ve come to expect from them: whatever they do will be interesting, unusual and thought-provoking. On ‘Virtue’, they’ve hit the jackpot with a bonus ball – fun.