The Strokes were victims of what happens to bands when the perfect storm of hype carries them beyond their allotted 15 minutes of fame. I remember publications calling them the next Nirvana. It was a poignant prophecy in a way, if by being the next Nirvana meant making three really good albums that were raw yet polished at the same time, and then never being heard from again. It’s hard when people anoint you the savior of rock and roll before you’ve actually really done anything. The Strokes unfortunately bought into the idea that they had to change the world, when they should have just kept on making Strokes albums. Their music was better than good enough, and much better than any of the solo records their hiatus has produced. Phrazes for the Young is no exception, though it comes closer than the others.
So what has Casablancas been doing all these years, besides not making an album with the Strokes? Judging from the lyrics, he’s been doing a lot of self-reflection. He’s been thinking, he’s been growing up, he’s been trying to make sense of the world, and he’s been trying out sobriety. All of this is easily apparent in Phrazes, where he seems to be apologizing at times, and at others, even offering some advice. The album’s title and influence come from Oscar Wilde’s Phrases and Philosophies for the Young, a collection of witty and often tongue-in-cheek bumper sticker-style self-help quotes like “Dullness is the coming of age of seriousness,” and “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.” The eight songs on Phrazes are based on the eight phrases Casablancas adds to the list, often slightly more serious than Wilde ever intended, like “Being nice is most important when others are not,” and “Drunkenness is cowardice, sobriety is loneliness.”
Casablancas is easily one of the most underrated talents in rock, but he only has himself to blame, and he’d probably like you to think that he doesn’t even care. The thing is, you know he does — that’s why his songs don’t suck. He’s got a thing for a hooky melody, and he’s always liked to mix it up stylistically while being extremely proficient at turning his influences into something of his own. Phrazes for the Young continues this tradition. It seems like the logical next step from his last batch of songs with the Strokes. This time, with nary a Strokes guitarist in sight, he ventures into electro-soul and ’80s synth-pop, sounding at its best moments like a young Van Morrison making an album with Erasure. He’s always written and arranged songs predominantly on the keyboard, so the synthesizer-heavy vibe of Phrazes suits Casablancas well.
It’s all a bit retro, yet slightly futuristic. “11th Dimension” is New Order meets Motown girl group, while a song like “Left and Right in the Dark” makes me think of both Flock of Seagulls and Cyndi Lauper — in the best way possible, mind you. “4 Chords of the Apocolypse ” is crooner cool with the added bonus of a sweet little solo, and “Ludlow Street” is a waltzy old Irish drinking song if Irish drinking songs featured drum machines. I love “River of Breaklights,” which falls somewhere between the last Strokes record and Thom Yorke’s Eraser, but my favorite is the jumpy opener “Out of the Blue,” where Casablancas is recounting mistakes of his past and only half apologizing for them. He’s learned some things along the way, but it’s not all regret. He wants to keep you from making his mistakes, yet he knows you need to. He’s “going to hell in a leather jacket,” but he’s fine with it, because “he’ll be in another world while you’re pissing on my casket.” I’m sure some people probably hate that line, but I fucking adore it. It’s a classic lyric in a song that is nothing if not classic Casablancas, and it sets the tone for the entire record. It’s not the only lyrical gem you’ll find here, either.
The negatives about this record go back to what I was saying before, and probably have more to do with what I’m used to hearing with Casablancas and the Strokes than anything really to do with Phrazes. Alone, Phrazes is an extremely enjoyable listen as far as I’m concerned, but in the context of the three Strokes albums, there’s a warmth and an attitude that’s sometimes missing, and every now and then it all feels kind of antiseptic and over-thought. That kind of thing can happen when you aren’t able to hide behind or within a band of brothers. The best thing about Casablancas with the Strokes was that they had the ability to craft amazingly good songs that sounded familiar yet fresh, all the while making it seem like they didn’t really give a shit. The Strokes had solid songs, but they also had a feel. Phrazes sounds meticulously crafted and produced, which shouldn’t alone be a negative, but I think Casablancas is just trying too hard and thinking too much, which is probably what inevitably sent the Strokes on hiatus in the first place.
Luckily, it’s a different world now, and no one expects the Strokes to change it anymore. The only people that still care about the band want nothing more than to hear more from them, and it’s just good to hear Casablancas writing songs again. If you liked the Strokes, you probably already own Phrazes, or you should. If you never liked them, this won’t change your mind — but what does become quite apparent with repeated listens is how much the Strokes are, in fact, Casablancas. Phrazes for the Young is in essence a Strokes album without the Strokes. Sure, he’s good enough to hold his own without them, but I can’t help but wonder how great this album would have sounded with the band. Julian Casablancas as a solo artist? I believe it, but I don’t want to. I just want another record from the Strokes, but I’ll take what I can get.