Jack White and Julian Casablancas Don't Give a Shit Anymore

The Voidz' new album 'Virtue' and White's #1 record 'Boarding House Reach' are both genre-agnostic experiments that make a case for the freedom of gleeful self-indulgence.
Jack White photo by photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images / Julian Casablancas photo by Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage

If you’ve ever had any doubts from the many heavy-lidded poses he’s adopted his career, Julian Casablancas never cared all that much about the whole “being famous” thing. He’s never really seen much of a correlation between the art that really matters and the degree to which it resonates in the world at large. He may have once sung that he didn’t “wanna be forgotten,” but in the years since he rose to international acclaim, he’s more or less said, with a sigh, that he didn’t really give a shit.

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See, as he explained in a recent interview with Vulture, all of history’s idiosyncratic greats like Jimi Hendrix or, uh, Ariel Pink, never got the acclaim they deserved (nevermind Hendrix’s chart success and culture shifting festival appearances). “Right now,” he surmised. “We’re mired in whoever’s propaganda is loudest.” He states the idea outright on “Permanent High School,” a song on his band the Voidz’ new record Virtue, when he sings bluntly, “Just because something’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s good.”

The joy of this particular moment that he’s chosen to not give a fuck in is that he’s not alone. To say nothing of the internet native experimenters treating the whole history of Western music as raw material for making Babel-like scrap towers toward the pop gods, this week’s number one album, thrown together by Casablancas’ old pal Jack White, is also the product of not giving a fuck. White’s said so outright in interviews. “This album is the culmination of, like, 'I don't care,'” he told Rolling Stone a couple weeks ago.

It may strike as a puerile pose—an especially laughable one, given the degree to which they defined what it meant to be popular in rock music in the early 2000s (nostalgically minded, significantly rich, modestly attractive, and blasé about all of it)—but its set them up in an interesting position as they approaches artistic middle age. Rather than contented in the successes of the sounds that made them famous, they’re feeling confrontational toward all the structures that uphold the pop music status quo and willing to upend them however they can.

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A little of Casablancas’ current headspace might be blamed on the response to his first album with the studio rats in the Voidz, Tyranny, a proggy, apoplectic record of dayglo soloing and abstract epics that shattered the droll melodiousness that longtime fans had come to expect of his work away from the Strokes. Though it was cultishly beloved, the critical response lay somewhere between muted and bewildered—an arched brow raised in the direction of the 11-minute songs about existential terror.

Casablancas and co. have seemingly taken that as a challenge on Virtue, which doubles down on the compositional contortions and stylistic head fakes. In just the first couple tracks, the band dive from skittering new wave (“Leave It in My Dreams”) to surrealist EBM-exotica (“QYURRYUS”) with a few hardcore breakdowns thrown in for good measure on “Pyramid of Bones.” The mandate of their name, per Casablancas in a recent interview, is to “explore the unexplored,” and even if it feels more like they’re spinning a big analog radio dial (landing on broadcasts from different eras of pop history, keeping in the static) there’s something that does feel truly boundary pushing in these amalgams.

Virtue is whiplash-inducing stuff, certainly not for the faint of spine, but it carries a real weight too, given Casablancas’ long-espoused fascinations with propagandist media manipulation and the overwhelming state of global politics. The stylistic hopscotchery evokes the overload of modern life, the sound of all the Spotify playlists—both the ones sponsored by Nike and the ones themed after international tragedies—melting down and bleeding together in a delirious swirl of pop runoff. It’s alternately upsetting and ecstatic, the sort of borderline-incoherent bit of babbling genius you can only land on when you approach your art with no expectations. When you don’t care at all.

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After years of tying himself down with compositional constraints and fetishizing old tech, Jack White’s new record Boarding House Reach was similarly made with more freedom—the ability to cut up takes and twist them into new forms, drawing on the legacy of rap beats and house music that also reside in his native Detroit. It must have been tough for someone so dedicated toward doing things in the moment that he’s requires you to lock up your phones at his shows (sure) to relax these restraints, but he’s ended up with a record that’s far more full of life than any of his work over the last decade.

There’s taut piano-funk grooves with titles like “Ice Station Zebra,” drippy synth experiments, cut-up breakbeats that come far closer to drum and bass than you’d ever expect a garage rock revivalist to ever get. There’s one song, called “Get in the Mind Shaft” that makes use of both a talk box and a gospel choir. There’s this general feeling of him running around the studio, picking up whatever toys he can get his hands on and laying them down to tape before he gets bored and tosses them aside. Are they good songs? That’s not really the point, to my ears, it’s more about introducing some energy back into the career of a guy who once said he wasn’t sure if making music was even fun.

If all of this makes these records sound mindlessly self-indulgent, well, yeah, they are. Obviously. There are absolutely moments of bad taste and head-scratching lyrical decisions (Jack White’s “Why Walk a Dog” is an organ ballad that begins *hits blunt* “Why does a dog need to be walked”), but that’s kinda beautiful in its own way, to see the duct tape and the chewing gum that’s holding all these weird experiments together. I am maybe uniquely positioned as someone approaching a big rock record as who prefers when things actively sound like shit, but even with that in mind, these records feel unique as reflections of the unrestrained id of their creators. They’re ambitious, exciting, a little ugly—the sorta thing that can only happen when you stop caring. And if lots of people buy it, that doesn’t make it good, but it can’t hurt.

Colin Joyce is trying really hard not to care on Twitter.