Julian Casablancas said at Coachella that the new music was meant to alienate the right people. If that meant that all those who have been convinced of their need for a succession of shiny happy pop songs to get them to work and who wish for the early days of the Strokes with the same fervor usually reserved for the opening of a new Starbucks nearby, then yes, this album will alienate people. Or it could provoke the indulgent pat on the back – it’s new, it’s bizarre, well done mate, now where’s the next Strokes album, blah blah blah.
But just listen. What do all great albums have in common? Nothing, except that they change, and give up more secrets the more you play them. Yet they cling to the particular madness of the moment in life when you first heard them. Isn’t that art? A reflection of its time that manages to transcend it as well.
The new songs had an airing at the Governor’s Ball. Though the sound wasn’t perfect, there was that shock of the completely new. New or not, Julian Casablancas can’t escape his stage presence. At one point, he threw a red plastic cup of water straight up into the air with an impressive, easy force. The cup hovered 20, 30 feet above his head, before falling. He watched it drop then smashed it into the back of the stage with a vicious athletic grace before returning to a laid-back near immobility in front of the adoring crowd. He can keep track of a lot at once, and has a force of will he hides imperfectly. Tyranny demonstrates all that.
The first song is Take Me in Your Army. With a deep hypnotic meditative bass sound paving the way for his voice, there’s barely held excitement in check, steady, the pulse of the song, his electronic falsetto. The change to the soulful counterpoint, the chorused guitar. The percussion in the back. The strange little part with the keyboard. The pun in the title. That lyric that comes through “They told me today to destroy you.” How can something so complicated stay with you, to return at moments of absurdity?
Human Sadness is the symphony. The vaguely Bowie-esque beginning and the words “put money in my hand and I’ll do the things you want me to.” That’s before the strings take over and the bass works with them, against them, over them, everywhere, to make a lullaby to sing, except for that sound like a series of far off explosions. This could have gone in so many directions, and you can imagine them all, all the different versions in the future, exploiting all the ideas that have been thrown in together. The guitar, rough, and hurting, the voice, soft and hurt, builds then changes. Different movements, it’s classical in construction. Halfway through it’s a symphony of wild emotions, video game noises from the past, an unexplainable history, bare and raw. Before winding down towards the end, and then rising back up again, a cathedral of sound, it’s 11 minutes of a life, the last minute and a half like a rewind, images rushing together before the end.
Where No Eagles Fly changes the mood drastically. The guitar riff, the loose stringed bass throating the music while the voice works with it, before bursting out, unable to be contained. The drums, a traffic jam of steady banging. “No one to enjoy you with.” It all just works, it all makes sense, it stays in your head, later, much later, at night alone on a half empty bus, early in the morning pretending that rushing for the train has meaning, stripping away lies.
Xerox is a harsh world of industrial stamping, punching through the space tripping rhythm and keyboards. It’s raw. Lines show up, try not thinking about them.
“I won’t fight it’s not the time or place.”
“Will the sky open up and destroy everyone I loved.”
“Everyone lies to me and tries to sell me stuff.”
“The velvet rope unhinged.”
“Cities turn to forests again.”
“When the devil offers you…” He plays with his voice. “I won’t think of it I won’t cry.”
Off to War is a deceptively short one to end it, organ, deep purple, the guitar, gun shots. The guitar plucks out the melody, sad, resigned. His voice morphs through tones and registers.
“Someone else got to you” “I wait for the light to shine,” rings out but it’s unclear if it is the light of understanding or the light of final total destruction.
Tyranny is bleak and crazed and extraordinary, and if this is the music that we’ll hear as we fight these last battles, it might all be worth it.