Second albums are nearly always labelled as ‘difficult’, whether it be because an artist is attempting to replicate the success of their first album, attempting to rebuild their career after their first effort bombed or simply if they are just attempting to make a good album. However, arguably never has ‘difficult second album’ been a better description of a record than that of Julian Casablancas’ second offering, Tyranny. Although being backed by his new band, The Voidz, this is very much a Casablancas solo effort and a sequel to his 2009 debut record as a solo artist, Phrazes for the Young, in spirit if not in sound.
Tyranny is a marked departure from effectively all of Casablancas’ collective discography, especially that of The Strokes. Largely gone are the catchy guitar melodies, the angsty New York lyrics and the slacker singing style. In their place Casablancas has provided harsh, dissonant sounds, with crunching guitars going toe-to-toe with falsetto vocals and disjointed keyboards. ‘Out with the old, in with the new’ seems to be Casablancas’ new mantra.
The album’s opening track, ‘Take Me in Your Army’, throws the listener in at the deep end and initially comes across as a mix between the experimentalism of The Velvet Underground’s White Light/ White Heat record and Damon Albarn’s newfound musical freedom in Blur’s Think Tank. The chorus’ refrain of “Take me in your army” comes across as incredibly unsettling when set against the pounding drums and throbbing instrumentation that engulfs the track. Casablancas’ vocals are joined by a background whisper in the second verse which only serves to turn this song into an incredibly disturbing experience. To begin an album which could make or break your solo career with a track as disorientating as this shows some real bravado from Casablancas and suggests that he is trying to have as little a commercial sound as possible. The electronic wave of sound which begins the album’s second track, ‘Crunch Punch’, recalls echoes of Kanye West’s Yeezus and suggests that Casablancas’ influences are much more wide ranging than just indie, punk and alternative music.
The lead single of the record is titled ‘Human Sadness’ and is possibly the strangest, most confusing and yet most magnificently beautiful track Casablancas has ever written. The mixture of lush background strings and an infectious bassline with Casablancas’ newly discovered falsetto vocals evokes an incredibly powerful atmosphere for this reviewer. It can be said that the best melodies can manifest a feeling of nostalgia inside the listener for past times never experienced. ‘Human Sadness’ has this power. The track was first revealed to fans through an email containing its lyrics, which range from baffling to almost profound to baffling again. The mumbled high-pitched vocals mask these lyrics anyway and so you could be forgiven for forgetting that Casablancas is actually speaking words.
Contrasting to ‘Human Sadness’, the second single taken from the album, ‘Where No Eagles Fly’, is more familiar territory, beginning with a similar bassline-followed-by-single-string-guitar-followed-by-slacker-vocals, with a chorus which draws parallels with The Stroke’s ‘Juicebox’.
Arguably the real downside of the album is that it tries to introduce too many ideas and too many sounds, which always threaten to collapse on themselves, making the whole record sound on a knife edge. However, this can be seen as part of the charm of the record, with Casablancas throwing all of his inspiration at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Tyranny is not an easy listen in the slightest, and many Casablancas fans may feel themselves alienated by the jagged and uncompromising sounds of the new record. But it is not an unrewarding listen, and repeat sessions with the album should bring about a new appreciation of the musicianship of The Voidz, especially their weaving together of complicated guitar and keyboard lines to create a dense and claustrophobic atmosphere. Whether this is what Casablancas intended or not is food for thought and could surely be debated for hours. Tyranny is not particularly a return to form for The Strokes frontman, and may not even be a step in the right direction, but it is definitely an individual and interesting record, and has gotten us talking about Casablancas more than we have been in years. Surely that can’t be a bad thing?