With ‘Virtue’ Julian Casablancas looks back (not necessarily in anger)

Sunday, April 1, 2018 - 5:17pm

Julian Casablancas

Julian Casablancas Buy this photo
Cult Records

I was fooled by “Leave it In My Dreams,” the first single off The Voidz’s sophomore effort, Virtue. I thought this was going to be a Strokes album. The muted riffs and sharp lyrics sound like an Angles bonus track.

But this is not a Strokes album, and it’s not exactly an album either. Virtue feels, instead, like a collection of everything frontman Julian Casablancas couldn’t do with that aforementioned band. It’s an outpouring of musical frustration.

It’s a mess, one that isn’t well served by determinations of “good” or “bad.” Some tracks excel, others confuse, but Virtue isn’t the sum of its unbalanced parts.

And Casablancas would probably love that designation. After his bonkers interview with Vulture, we know he’s a man whose steadfast ideologies are all but completely removed from reality. He’s easy to confuse with a certain love interest from a certain best picture nominee. Yes, that’s right. L’Enfance Nue is older, but in no way grown up.

And the Julian/Kyle parallel has never been more apparent than on Virtue. “I was soon sent off to school / Where the teachers gave me poison / And I drank it like a fool,” Casablancas sings on “Think Before You Drink, ” a track sonically reminiscent of “I’ll Try Anything Once.” He’s rightfully preoccupied with the world’s suffering and decay, but hasn’t yet grown out of seeing himself at its center.

On “Lazy Boy” — a song that lyrically could’ve been written by that one band from your high school (see previous “Lady Bird” reference) — Casablancas sings: “Jackets are the eyes to the soul,” proving he can actually be self reflective. Casablanca’s rebranding of a specific downtown cool for the new millennium cemented The Strokes in the visual cultural memory. He seems, here, to be trying to reconcile his desire for musical recognition and his whole-hearted condemnation of music the world deems “popular.” It’s a true Catch-22 for Julian: Fame is for frauds and obsolescence is for the untalented.

For brief moments — “Leave it in My Dreams” and “All Wordz Are Made Up” — Virtue sees the Voidz letting go, leaning wholeheartedly into a kind of joyful existentialism. Nothing matters! Isn’t that sort of fun? “No one will care about this in 10 years,” he sings on “All Wordz Are Made Up,” in another moment of self awareness. He seems to understand the shelf life of his specific celebrity brand, and his precarious position in popular culture. But these tracks lack the self-lamentation found in other corners of the album. They’re, even if only momentarily, carefree in their nihilism.

Virtue is an operation in nostalgia that tries to front as forward thinking. Casablancas got slammed for rewriting the ’70s with The Strokes. With The Voidz, he’s moved his musical homage a decade into the future — mining the ’80s in all their synth-filled, vocally distorted glory. In that sense, Virtue is progressive for an artist obsessed with the past. But it’s not progressive for 2018, not really.

Casablancas isn’t looking into the future at all. In many ways, Virtue feels like a last ditch effort — one final shot to get all the things in his head into an album. In a move that leans more towards a mixtape than a cohesive album, the Voidz bounce from art rock to synth pop to a weird attempt at metal (the aptly titled “Pyramid of Bones”). It’s as disjointed as it is unbalanced. But, as we know, when Casablancas is on, he’s on and when he’s not, he’s so earnest in his attempt that you can’t help but applaud it.

For moments he feels jaded in his surrender to middle age. While his primary business has always been nostalgia, Casablancas seems to be looking back on his own life: his youth, his angst, his glory. And it’s hard to blame him, The Strokes rocked. So we can revel in this mess of an album a little longer than most, cut it’s chaos more slack than we otherwise would. Virtue is exactly what we knew would happen when Julian Casablancas had to finally grow up.

There are very few things I know to be absolute truths but among them are these: New York rock isn’t dead yet and Julian Casablancas is no longer it’s savior. And maybe he never was.