Rock and roll is a very Western art form; it’s branded by our homegrown strain of doublethink. Rock stars question the power structure while moving like tiny model corporations. They challenge the dream of wealth and prosperity because they believe in it. This is how the Grateful Dead managed to be Haight-Ashbury spiritual ambassadors and filthy-rich stadium regulars in the same lifetime, how David Bowie could peck at puritanism and prod at gender politics on both sides of the Atlantic while nursing a quiet fixation with fascism. The best and brightest are always loud and conflicted, and those quirks grow with time. Consider Paul McCartney getting from “Maybe I’m Amazed” to “Wonderful Christmastime” in a decade, or Billy Corgan’s trek from the tortured guitar whiz of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness to the cat-mag cover star and Infowars regular he is today.
New albums this month from Julian Casablancas and Jack White, front men of the aughts’ breakout garage-rock revival stars the Strokes and the White Stripes, find the artists pushing against the urge to settle down in their 40s by making some of the most willfully offbeat music in their respective catalogues. White’s new solo album Boarding House Reach is a quixotic blend of funk and rap-rock that feels like a grenade tossed into a back catalogue of blues-rock nuggets whose reliability had begun to petrify into stiffness and predictability. Virtue, Casablancas’s second record with his new band the Voidz, reins in some (but not all) of the quirks of their 2014 debut Tyranny and comes away with the singer’s most tuneful project in years and his most overtly political writing since “New York City Cops” got left off Is This It.
If you didn’t always suspect Jack White was the type to freak out and make a psychedelic Red Hot Chili Peppers album, perhaps you weren’t paying attention. He’s known for his enthusiastic patronage of folk, country, and the blues, but his tastes have always run wide, and his demeanor has always run weird. White approaches his music with a scientist’s eye for invention. His side project Dead Weather’s 2010 single “Blue Blood Blues” was pressed as a 12-inch single with a 7-inch single inside. He recorded, pressed, and packaged the title track to 2014’s Lazaretto in just four hours, breaking the Guinness world record for the fastest physical release of a song. A deluxe edition of the Lazaretto LP came with hidden tracks and outtakes accessed by playing the 33⅓-rpm record at 45 and 78 rpm.
Jack White treated even the gutted swamp-rock bluster of the White Stripes as a writing challenge, an intentional reduction of rock to its base elements: “The White Stripes was nothing but constriction,” he tells Q magazine in the British rock mag’s May issue. “I feel like it’s better to put obstacles in my path in order to get someplace new.” This year’s experiment involved writing a new batch of songs in seclusion, then fleshing them out with players the singer-songwriter had never worked with before. Boarding House Reach’s esteemed panel of session players includes the Afro-Cuban salsa legend Bobby Allende, the gospel group the McCrary Sisters, hip-hop producer DJ Harrison, and rap drummer Daru Jones.
The grooves are fluid because the players are accomplished. “Corporation” is funky Booker T and the M.G.’s fan service, while “Respect Commander” marries wigged-out punk-funk to ’80s electro and menacing blues. “Connected by Love” and “Over and Over and Over” are proof Jack White can bang out a killer hard-rock riff in his sleep. But Boarding House being an experiment in overriding White’s instincts means the highlights here are marred by genre exercises seemingly devised to throw the band leader, which is how we get filler like “Abulia and Akrasia,” a poem recited by Australian singer-songwriter CW Stoneking that sounds like a Reconstruction-era vagabond’s last will and testament, and “Ice Station Zebra,” whose shamelessly bad rapping makes Anthony Kiedis look like Big Daddy Kane. Some of the weirder numbers actually work — “Hypermisophoniac” turns a wheezing, unpleasant synth line into the backbone for a spirited jam. But like a kid fooling around with a nifty new Lego set, Boarding House Reach often struggles to arrange its most intriguing pieces into a pleasing, functional whole.
The same could be said of Julian Casablancas’s post-Strokes career. The singer suffers from the Illmatic curse, where an essentially flawless debut album casts an inescapable shadow over the rest of the artist’s body of work, and they never know whether they should be running toward or away from the legacy. In 2001, Is This It was a wonder of melodic excellence, of tiny interlocking grooves playing exactly as many notes as was needed to sell an emotion. Casablancas and his gang of downtown New York party animals were the ultimate rock-and-roll paradox: severely rich and well-traveled sons of industry making music that could’ve come out of a grimy city basement during the summer of the great blackout.
Casablancas’s work outside of the band seemed like a reaction to the Strokes’ precision. His 2009 solo album Phrazes for the Young added slow jams and prominent synth sounds to his repertoire; cuts like the Strokes-do-Suicide jam “Left & Right in the Dark” make it easy to see why Daft Punk tapped the singer on the Random Access Memories deep cut “Instant Crush.” Casablancas spun even further out on the first Voidz album (whose deliberately confrontational mix I once dismissed as “crust Strokes”). That album was loaded with punk, metal, and pop nuggets that sounded like they were pouring out from blown speakers. Like Boarding House Reach, it’s not a bad album, it was just so geeked about its own creative range that it buried its best qualities, namely the singer’s delightfully disaffected voice.
Virtue doesn’t repeat this mistake. Casablancas’s vocals are much less garbled this time out, and his voice feels like an anchor grounding the album through jarring shifts between songs pulling from punk, rock, folk, house, and metal. The opener, “Leave It in My Dreams,” is a peppy tune that sails in on a bright guitar lick that’ll invite easy Strokes comparisons, when really the vibe is electronic rock in the vein of Springsteen’s Lucky Town or Fleetwood Mac’s “Seven Wonders.” Virtue doesn’t settle on any one mood for long: “Pyramid of Bones” is a pile of crushing Zeppelinesque licks; “ALieNNatioN” is a stab at hip-hop that lands in the same inexplicably transcendent post-genre space as album-one Gorillaz. “Permanent High School” aims for the same mix of tinny drums and minimalist guitar licks as early Casablancas gems like “Alone, Together” and actually nails it, before shifting without warning to a Joy Division-y high hat shuffle for kicks because this is a band excelling at any old thing it tries right now.
Well, almost anything. Virtue’s lyrics seem interested in the snap of witty protest signs but what is really conveyed is the naïve insouciance of someone with a lot of ideas about how the world ought to work but not enough about how it actually does: “Just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good.” “Don’t you ever listen to the white man’s lies.” “I’ve been bathing in the blood of sweet success.” Sometimes they’re self-aware, like when Julian sings “I was playing it too safe … playing it too safe can be dangerous” on “Wink,” and sometimes they’re silly. Centering politics is a bit of a risk for a guy who lionizes Oliver Stone’s contested, controversial Untold History of the United States, but allot him points for trying when not all of his peers do. Jack White is resigned about the state of the world: “I’ve been depressed about politics since Trump came on the scene,” he told Q, “so I kind of lost interest in the world.” Boarding House gestures at the sound of restless California rap-rock guys like Rage Against the Machine and the Chilis but ducks the former’s intelligent outrage and the latter’s grounded sadness in favor of rock-star boilerplate like “Do you want to question everything? Then think of a good question!”
Jack White sounds tired of being Jack White, while Julian Casablancas is still sorting out the many things he can be. White’s commitment to thundering guitar riffs and monochrome outfits branded him as an enthusiastic blues archivalist in the public eye, and Boarding House Reach seems like a misguided attempt to shake what’s fundamentally a decent reputation. A student of music of his caliber ought to know that you can’t just barrel into another genre by calling up all the hottest session hands and praying for chemistry. Casablancas’s path to a different career space took a lot of spirited fooling around, but the payoff is that Virtue — inarguably the singer’s best album since … pick your favorite early Strokes album — feels like a new beginning, where his peer’s new release seems like something he’ll sheepishly pawn off as a necessary creative detour next album cycle.