Picture a deserted landscape in the middle of a vast universe — bleak and flat and almost entirely devoid of life, save for one lone figure. He is scrawny and somewhat dejected, most likely clad in vintage Levi jeans and Converse sneakers and smoking unfiltered Camels (despite the lack of atmosphere in outer space).

Julian Casablancas

Phrazes for the Young
Rough Trade

Dorothy, you’re not in Williamsburg anymore.

This cinematic vision is realized in Phrazes for the Young, The Strokes’ lead singer Julian Casablancas’s highly anticipated solo debut. A far cry from the gritty tone of the Strokes’ albums, Phrazes shows Casablancas embracing the glamour of alienation by naturally playing the anti-hero in his self-created, dystopian world. He revels in it, in fact. On the first track, “Out of the Blue,” Casablancas croons knowingly that he’s “going to hell in a leather jacket.” He seems to thoroughly enjoy the prospect.

This should come as no surprise, considering that many have crowned Casablancas and his sartorially disheveled band mates the original hipsters back in 2001, when they ushered in and spawned a new generation of disaffected youth. The same jaded mien is still there, but this time Casablancas is on an entirely different planet. And he’s utterly alone in this realm — there’s a pervasive sense that he hasn’t been around people in a long, long time. The imagery presented in Phrazes for the Young is something very despondently beautiful — it’s simultaneously novel and familiar, à la “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The album is reminiscent of the ’70s-inspired Strokes, but with a heavy dash of modern synth — the effect is that of a neon gramophone, or a wooden keytar.

Then again, Casablancas has always been a study in contradictions. He’s a misanthrope, but he’s lonely without people. Casablancas condemns us all, and yet there’s a sense he would join us if he could. Perhaps his disillusionment with humankind stems from his fear of disappointment in it. “Please don’t deceive me / I’m just a wiz of the fool,” Casablancas implores on the track “Glass,” in his signature drawl. He shrugs off self-made accusations of his own depression — “I’m not sad / I understand / That’s how it goes.” Sure, Jules. Whatever you say.

Sometimes, Casablancas wallows in self-pity a little too long and a little too much. “4 Chords of the Apocalypse” is steeped in pseudo-proverbs to the point where it feels like a chastisement: “So give anyone you want / It’s all right with me.” Casablancas is painfully self-aware to the point where faux-apathetic lines like “It’s all right with me” become unintentional refrains. The fuzzily distorted, overpowering guitar does the song no favors — it’s difficult to sympathize with Casablancas’s laments when the listener can’t even sing along. But once in a while, he manages to break out of his gloom. “11th Dimension” is an irresistible pop gem that thrusts listeners into another plane rife with jauntily careless beats, raising suspicions that Casablancas might not be quite so downtrodden after all.

Collectively the album is both sophisticated and stylish — much like the image of Casablancas himself, who seems to wear his style like protective armor, a shield against humanity. But listeners might be curious to know what lurks behind all that sophisticated gadgetry: the synthetic instruments, the dapper outfits, the carefully crafted image and the mythology that surrounds the enigmatic, tragically glamorous singer. While the futuristic sounds of Phrazes for the Young makes for a good listen, it would be worthwhile, and perhaps more meaningful, to see Casablancas’s moody demeanor stripped down and see him brought back to Earth.

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