If a wise sage had predicted in 2001 that the louche, leathered-up and super-hyped lead singer of The Strokes would one day, around the golden age of 40, be dropping pounding, ominous darkwave bangers with Indian-inspired shrieking choruses, the elder would no doubt have been cast unto thy outer forests forevermore. With his borderline obsessive NME coverage, major label publicity army backing, and Upper West Side old money connections, young Julez Casablancas seemed effortlessly destined for the type of long run mainstream music world acceptance enjoyed by Illuminati Dave Grohl and pre-photog-kick Josh Homme types. And yet here we are in 2018 and Julez is leading a motley cru of mulleted music industry periphery players (not The Strokes) merrily into The Void with nary a leather jacket in sight, screaming complex couplets at the world through autotune bridges on a song titled “QYURRYUS”.
So what in Satan’s name happened? We’ll leave it to our main man Michael Nelson to muse over all that. Our job is to try to review this beast. The darkwave track in question drops in as track 2 here, coming right on the heels of the most throwback Strokesian track of the entire mess, “Leave It In My Dreams”. So is “QYURRYUS” a good song? In this context it really doesn’t matter. It is meant as a STATEMENT. “Oh, so you liked those Albert Hammond Jr. guitars on the first track, did you? Well then try to ‘undress this hot mess!’” Speaking of “Leave It In My Dreams”, this is the best thing Julez has touched in at least a decade, riding a breezy bounce headfirst into a chorus that comes on like the first day of Spring. Critics tend to read far too much into Casa’s lyrics (“Oh, this one is obviously taking shots at his Strokes band mates.”) but all the guy seems to be doing on this one, as on much of the rest of the album, is chafing against the onset of middle age domesticity. “Tried to wake so early, get up in the mornin’ it just hurts” If there’s been a better chorus than this recently then I haven’t heard it.
The Strokes shit concludes with the last high register guitar fade on “Dreams”, leaving us on a 14-track journey into present day Casablancas cluttered madness. Virtue is far less abrasive than the first Voids platter, Tyranny, and is all the better for it. In a trippy alternate dimension a lot of these songs could even be on the radio. “All Wordz Are made Up” has a Faith-era George Michael chorus and super-bright United Colors Of Benetton verses that clash together delightfully. If you can get past the sheer absurdity of the onetime Savior Of Rock singing such a thing, there is a shimmering pop treat to bop your head to here. The Voidzsters get extra props for the song’s sudden stop, which is laugh-out-loud material. Far more relaxed and groovy this time around, Julez and his new boyz sound as if they’re having a lot of fun, something sorely missing from later-day Strokes records. One of the best tracks on the record, “Wink”, sets its Korg controls for the heart of the sun with Jules singing how he wants to snatch you up into his “crocodile mouth” and then do something unintelligible to you in a swamp. “Pink Ocean” is a slinky second half treat. I get the sense that this is as close to Julez’ true musical vision as he can get with mere mortals playing his tunes, and he rides the verses like a gothy R&B princeling, somehow sounding seductively confident on lines that read suicidal on paper. “I want out of this world,” Julez falsettos all over the chorus, and with a baseline this unstoppable you want to ride right on out with him.
Much like Egypt’s Valley Of The Kings, Virtue’s first half contains much gold under its hazy and alien desert surface. There’s the angel-dusted New Romantic grooves of “Permanent High School” where Julian lets us know that “If I told you the truth it would be a lie” and before we can say, “hey that’s not fair” he tells us to “deal with it”. Then we have the spacey, fried-out goodness of “ALieNNatioN” which glides like a suspicious aircraft over some uncharted air zone. “I’ve been sipping on the blood of sweet success” Julian croons over what sounds like a flute line but is probably just the freaky Void with the blond afro manipulating some self-made mono synth.
Those brave, grizzled explorers who have made it to the dense jungles of the second half of Planet Virtue will find themselves stumbling across some amazing hidden shrines in the undergrowth. “Lazy Boy” shimmers and struts with choruses within choruses and kaleidoscope verses that unspool into rubber-bounce bridges, over which Julian coos lines like “jackets are the eyes to the soul” and “everything I say is everything you wanna’ hear” like a disaffected version of Sam Cook.
This is not to say that Virtue is some sort of concession to the “we want real songs and we want them now” crowd. There’s just so much weird and wooly strangeness going on here it makes for an overlong and disorienting listen. “We’re Where We Were” and the particularly metal “Pyramid Of Bones” grate and challenge like Tyranny at its most off-kilter. The punk-as-fuck vocalisms of the former are vaguely laughable, while the latter scores some points thanks to biting lines about “white devils” and other menacing stuff. If Bob Dylan circa 1965 had ingested three hits of molly and a toke off a super-heady vape, he may have come up with something like “Think Before You Drink”. “One Of The Ones” wastes some immaculately savage squelchy guitar lines on a circular falsetto chorus that feels mailed in from a different song by a different band in a different solar system. I’m not sure exactly what is happening with the alien dolphin vocal effects of “My Friend The Walls” but I do know that the song frightens me greatly. “When I get my hands on you, oh oh oh oh” Please Julez don’t hurt me.
How does an artist even land such an unwieldy hovercraft back on the Earth’s surface? Fortunately for us natives below, Sir Casa lowers down in the gentle, grand slipstream of “Pointlessness”, landing in a washed-out poppy field of ennui and vivid hues. There has been much debate since Tyranny dropped about the state of Julez’ mind and being. Is he on drugs? Is he an advanced life form tapping into frequencies far beyond the human threshold? On “Pointlessness” he just sounds exhausted, moaning, “What does it maaaatttteeerrrrrrr” into the widening vacuum of music industry hassles, fan expectations, ageing father worries, and existential hurdles. A celestial and entirely convincing comedown vaporwave, “Pointlessness” and much of the rest of Virtue ticks the dial a whole lot further into the “advanced being” column than Tyranny did.
It feels strange to refer to this dense and unwieldy beast of a record as a crowd pleaser, but in an awful lot of ways this is exactly the tarot that Julian Casablancas has produced from his deck here. Julez and the Voidz Boys toss out just enough shimmering pop scraps to tantalize the Strokes Empire while simultaneously raining glitched-out dystopian nightmares on the lumpen fringes dancing in its ruins.
For The Strokes Empire:
Leave It In My Dreams
Permanent High School
All Wordz Are Made Up
For The Lumpen Fringes Dancing In Its Ruins:
Pyramid Of Bones
One Of The Ones
My Friend The Walls
We’re Where We Were
Photo by Abby Ross