When rock ‘n’ roll seems to be clinging to the cliff, it’s more like the ending of a Netflix movie holding out for the sequel. It’s a genre that has more lives than a feline James Bond, but of the many revivals and artists who saved guitar music, as the frontman of The Strokes, Julian Casablancas had much more of a bearing than most of the championed saviours.
As Adam Ficek of Babyshambles told us upon the anniversary of Is This It:
“The Strokes shook us from the post Britpop lull creeping in from ’97. I had slowly moved my attention to the excitement of the London Breakbeat scene, but in 2001 my love of grit and guitars came back with laser-sharp focus. The Strokes, the look, that video! It kickstarted and reinvigorated band culture.”
Casablancas songwriting is often an overlooked factor behind it all. In truth, he’s not necessarily what you’d call a poetic lyricist like Patti Smith or a truly singular force like Mark E Smith, and his societal incursions are perhaps not as deep as his hero Lou Reed’s; but just like all of the above he knows his strength and uses it magnificent effect.
Where Casablancas triumphs as a songwriter is in his ability to snatch and seize at energy and atmosphere.
Below we’re looking at ten of his best lyrics and seeing how they define him as a songsmith.
10 of Julian Casablancas best lines:
Memory in melody – ‘Is This It’
“Can’t you see I’m trying?
I don’t even like it
I just lied to
Get to your apartment
Now I’m staying”
The first lines on Is This It might not be a poignant piece of writing, but they are as iconic as the album itself and etched seamlessly into the consciousness of any fan or even contrarian foe from a certain generation.
And in some ways, they are, in fact, quite a profound marker for the band as Casablancas seemed to say we’re not here to hark on about problems but to reclaim the reckless vibrancy of youth. Alas, if Casablancas is a songwriter whose prerogative is dynamism, then he gives life to that mantra with his first line that is woven indelibly in the melody of the song and all our memories alike.
The romanticism of reminiscing – ‘Someday’
“In many ways, they’ll miss the good old days
Yeah, it hurts to say, but I want you to stay
When we was young, oh man, did we have fun
Once again, Casablancas isn’t reinventing the lyrical wheel here, but his simple nostalgic propositions colour the song with a sense of sanguine reverie without ever having to reach for the nitty-gritty of specifics.
When coupled with the vibrant summery energy of the song the simple suggestion of “the good old days” resonates with the youthful energy of that sepia-toned visceral feeling, that seemingly abides through youth until those wistful daydreams never matched, crystalise as the real thing in the lines around the eyes of adulthood.
Frank and forthright – ‘Under Control’
“I don’t want to change your mind,
I don’t want to waste your time.
I just want to know you’re alright.”
Before even getting onto the lyrics, let’s first acknowledge that ‘Under Control’ is the most under-appreciated gem in The Strokes back catalogue; it’s a gorgeous tune and undoubtedly one of their most underrated, much like Room On Fire as a whole for that matter!
His brutally honest appraisal of a relationship throughout the track echoes harsh bittersweet truths. Much like with his musical stylings and delivery, he is unflinching when it comes to songwriting, and just about everything else now I come to think of it.
A firm handle on things – ‘I’ll Try Anything Once’
“Ten decisions shape your life
You’ll be aware of five about.”
Sometimes a deep cut trumps the latter permutation that follows, ‘You Only Live Once’, is a fantastic single from The Strokes, but there are similar indie-rock classics lingering in their back catalogue that are more than capable of conquering it. The original demo, however, is a wonder to behold.
‘I’ll Try Anything Once’ defines the inherent appeal of deep cuts in general. It stands out as a far more withdrawn and vulnerable song than the fresh indie joys that make it to record. With Nick Valensi tentatively tapping about a sort of mellowed melancholic melody on piano and Julian Casablancas purring out the best lyrics that he has ever written, the song almost seems fated to be shrouded in the ethereal darkness of demos where creativity quietly creeps into illuminated existence. It is in this shrouded realm that Casablancas purrs with the bittersweet hard truths of life that are branded onto the sensibilities of listeners. He’s not the only person to have listed it all like this, but not many have done it with such simultaneous beauty and concision.
Social mirror – ‘Ize of the World’
“Your dreams are sweet and obsessed and you’re overworked
You’re overtaken by visions of being overlooked
How disappointed would D. I. D. I. P. P. be
To see such power in our hands all wasted on greed?”
Things took a distinct turn for The Strokes in every which way on First Impressions Of Earth. Everything seemed a little bit different and the songwriting was no different. It was darker, heavier and in a lyrical sense, it took a step back and had a long hard stare at the world like fellow New Yorker, Travis Bickle.
‘Ize of the World’ is an unfurling rap of constant social disdain as Casablancas holds a mirror to the world stacked up on new age philosophy. The track is loaded with Marxist theory and, as such, Casablancas saw fit the build the most searing instrumentation that he’s ever cooked up to lend his message a scathing force.
Quotable lines – ’15 Minutes’
“The hateful things you think you want to say,
Time will turn them into jokes.”
Because of the fact that Casablancas disavows the prose-like mass of many songwriters, his succinct approach allows for more space to give a single line the chance to breathe. In ’15 Minutes’ he turns out an utterance that sits aside from the usual stream of lyrics like that sentence in a book where the author took a pause.
The track might not be one of their most memorable, but this line stands out as a high point of precise poignancy for Casablancas as he reflected on the strain the circumstance had twisted into the inner relationships of the band.
Fiddling with the fabric – ‘Vision of Division’
“Sing me a song
You could be Tell me a tale
Just like me Don’t turn it my way
Happy and Free I’ll turn it to shit
Happy and Free”
On ‘Vision of Division’ Casablancas verges on being too clever for his own good with a stylistic bit of wordplay that goes amiss to many. The song, on the surface, seems like an impenetrable obfuscated dirge. However, he adds two distinct inflexions to alternating phrases that divide the song up into separate parts, as in a vision of division.
In the verse, above he drops an octave and adds stress to the alternating lines of: “You could be”, “Just like me”, “Happy and free”, “Happy and free”. Thus, when divided up as though it was sung by two separate characters an octave apart, it becomes: “Sing me a song, tell me a tale, don’t turn it my way, I’ll turn it to shit. You could be, just like me, happy and free, happy and free.” As it happens, it is all muddled into the same verse to both fit the rhythm and imply the duality of division for those listening with a close ear.
Painting a picture – ‘Left & Right in the Dark’
“Running in the parking lot I’m four years old
I am lost, those were the days”
His first solo outing found him in a much more introspective vein and ‘Left & Right in the Dark’ is one of the tracks that benefit most from the new lyrical styling. Coupled with the eighties production of the track, this look back at snotty-nosed days is coloured with the visceral universality of childhood memories.
Now, looking back at this song and the record as a whole, it has a distinct Stranger Things feel to it. Whether or not the show was influenced by Casablancas matters not, it just goes to show that he often finds himself so far ahead of the curve that it was actually a straight road before he drove by.
Looking ahead – ‘Slow Animals’
“Now, they’re scared of where their daughter’s been
‘Cause who knows, she could be alone with men
They never wanna see or hear or think about again.”
Casablancas once declared that politics is always thirty years behind the curve. Now, that’s not a new understanding he’s reached, the lapsed unfurling of politics has been noted since time immemorial, but it is noteworthy that he remains cognizant of that knowledge throughout his songwriting.
With a probing look at society, he analyses the hypocrisy surrounding the way that the next generation of youth is often viewed. And what’s more, he wraps it up with a bouncing rhythm running through the words.
A tender side – ‘Selfless’
“Please don’t be long, ’cause I want your love
I don’t have love without your arm
Life is too short, but I will live for you”
Coupling this verse with perhaps the highpoint of his career as a vocalist with a brisling falsetto, Casablancas reveals that he isn’t all about snarling remarks and leather jackets. In a career that has often seen him speaking out of the side of his mouth, so to speak, he takes a pause to pour all the sincerity he can into this line.
The verse is daringly vulnerable but the puppy-dog eyes don’t come off as soppy owing to a back catalogue brimming with stern New York attitude and the darker verses that lay ahead. All the same, it’s charming to know that he has a soft side as he pines away with a wailing ode.