Casablancas not succeeding on his own

2.5/5 stars

When the Strokes released their debut, Is This It, in 2001 – sporting seemingly shampoo-proof mops, seedy Chucks and an attitude that would usher in a new generation of cool – they were on top of the world.  Their music, Manhattan hedonism embodied with every drawled syllable, careless riff and lethargic bass line, made them critics’ darlings, though they really couldn’t care less.  They were the new rebels, too unaffected to actually do anything save look really, really cool.

As front man of the Strokes, Julian Casablancas was frenetic, effortless, collected.  Two albums (one good, one not-so-much) and a three-year hiatus later, a lot has changed.  When the newly solo Casablancas debuted “11th Dimension” on Conan O’Brian last week, the once fearless front man simply looked lost.  He stood uncomfortably still, smiling vaguely and wobbling awkwardly, while a non-Strokes backing band played clownish organs.  Sure, the poppy, light song was fine, but Casablancas sacrificed his apathetic air to all the pretensions the Strokes cast away.  In his debut solo album, Phrazes for the Young, Casablancas, former master of nonchalance, seems to try really hard to make you like him.  His synth-y experimentalism seems more lacquered than layered and his attempt at Oscar Wilde-ish repartee only yields clunky platitudes.

On Phrazes for the Young, named after Oscar Wilde’s pamphlet of epigrams, Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young, Casablancas tries to rival its namesake in wit.  The problem is, rather than thinking up brilliantly cutting remarks like “time is a waste of money,” Casablancas provides such clunkers as “it’s nice to be important but…it’s more important to be nice” (“4 Chords of the Apocalypse”).

Freed from the Strokes’ garage-revival label, Casablancas shifts towards a more textured electronic sound.  No shortage of digital doodads round off the characteristic roughness of Casablancas’ voice, stripping him of the imperfect appeal his former growl provided. In Phrazes, Casablancas ventures towards the mainstream, earning mass appeal with radio-ready futuristic pop.

Though Casablancas really makes an effort to prove his value as a solo artist, he gets a bit mixed up along the way.  He tries out electro-soul during “4 Chords of the Apocolypse,” Manhattan-meets-country kitsch during “Ludlow St.” and Top Fourty balladry during “Tourist.”

Casablancas shines in the charmingly airy “11th Dimension,” which floats along with jaunty danceability.  Even with some clumsy attempts at satire, comparing America to “the surface of a frozen fireball,” Casablancas stays afloat atop silly, catchy fun.

The album’s best song is “Glass,” a hauntingly pretty (seriously haunting) dystopian tale in which Casablancas heartbrokenly pleads, “please don’t deceive me.”

In “Out of the Blue,” 31-year-old Casablancas sounds as though he’s reflecting as his life comes to an end.  The song takes Wilde’s Phrases’ phrase “to be premature is to be perfect” a bit too literally, but the song remains light and Casablancas actually sounds sincere.  Casablancas, off to such a great start on this one, just couldn’t resist throwing in some non-sequitur social criticism, making a random reference to Muslim-Jewish relations at the end of a personal elegy.

Oscar Wilde was a strong believer in the supremacy of youth.  Casablancas, in his attempts to emulate the author, seems more like the elder aristocrats Wilde so often mocked.  His production is overstuffed, his lyrics feel outdated or inflated and his witticisms fall flat.  With the Strokes, Casablancas wrote about the New York lifestyle that he knew and ended up with concise pop-rock gems.  On Phrazes for the Young, he treads on high-minded ground and loses himself along the way.

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