You know what they say, waiting for The Strokes members to release albums is like waiting for buses. You wait for ages, and then two come along at once. After Albert Hammond Jr’s Francis Trouble earlier this month, The Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas is back with another solo venture. The Voidz, his side project away from the New York five-piece, has always held a strange place in the music industry and, indeed, with fans of Casablancas. There’s a general consensus that he doesn’t change too much from The Strokes’ winning formula for it to not be uninteresting but, without Albert Hammond Jr and co, it’s always seemed a little Strokes-lite. However, their new album, Virtue, their first since dropping the ‘Julian Casablancas and’ moniker, feels like a genuine change and definitely a step in the right direction.
There seems to be more of a sense of fun with Virtue, with a combination of quirky, futuristic lyrics and a more mainstream sheen to the production. Casablancas explained Virtue by calling it, “More sleek and polished, but it’s still futuristic prison jazz” and that’s an excellent description. Like 00s indie-rock meets krautrock, it’s a hell of a ride with an enormous amount of fun. Whether it’s with the dynamic ‘QYURRYUS’, which sounds like an album track from Prince’s 1999, or the effortless hip-hop-inspired beats of ‘ALieNNatioN’, this is an entertaining romp for the most part.
It’s not all fun and games, however, as Casablancas appears to be angrier than ever. On the macabre ‘Black Hole’, Casablancas subtly hints at Donald Trump’s America by declaring: “Well it feels good going down the drain” which is about as delicate as the protest gets. It gets much more volatile on the punkiest number on the record, ‘We’re Where We Were’, which opens with: “New holocaust happening/What, are you blind?/You’re in Germany now/1939.” It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but with its monstrous riffs and the vulgarity in Casablancas’ vocal delivery (which is one of his most versatile performances yet, it has to be said), it packs an almighty punch.
In many ways, however, Virtue appears to be a re-stepping of Casablancas’ past career moves. There’s something for The Strokes fans here with ‘Leave it in My Dreams’, the opening track that most resembles the New York heroes. It’s a bright, laidback track that resembles The Strokes’ 2011 record Angles, with Jeremy Gritter and Amir Yaghmai’s guitars emanating glimmer, sunshine and a lovingly packaged slice of surf-rock. Yet, on an album like this, with so much anger and passion at times, it seems a little trivial. While ‘All Wordz Are Made Up’ sees Casablancas and co. pick up where his Daft Punk-featuring ‘Instant Crush’ left off, with a track that sounds like someone attempting Beck on a karaoke machine. Believe me, it’s as wince-inducing as it sounds.
Over the years, through interviews (he recently said he didn’t like The Beatles and, of course, criticised mainstream music) and his on-stage persona, Casablancas has conducted himself in a very serious way, coming across as a bit of a grump in all honesty. This makes Virtue all the more refreshing, as it appears to have put the fun factor back into the 39-year-old. Virtue is an unpredictable, uneven and inconsistent record but, for the most part, it’s a wholesome and joyous ride. Additionally, unlike many indie heroes from the 2000s, Casablancas is continuing to make very interesting music, and this could be his best solo album yet.