As is the case with The Strokes, most songs feature large, cathartic choruses with highly sing-a-longable hooks that resolve, or at least validate, the harried indecision and regret the narrator relates through the verses. They're full of blippy bloops and synths that sound like they might be guitars (or maybe it's the other way around), and experiments in genre cross-pollination. "4 Chords of the Apocalypse" is an exercise in waltzy balladeering that Julian pulls off within his singular vocal style, while the similarly-metered "Ludlow St." is a cheesy futuristic sad cowboy song with a jarringly chromatic ukelele solo. "River of Brake Lights" is a song that never seems to know what it's trying to be, and flounders about, confounding attempts to decipher any tonal intention, at times under a repeated incantation of "getting the hang of it/timing is everything/timing the hang of it/getting is everything/getting the time of it/everything hangs on this/hanging the getting of/timing is everything", or something to that effect.

There are some truly inspired moments on Phrazes, but they're often undermined by the deliberately hokey casiotone of the arrangements, which feel canned and sterile when not handled properly. Casablancas has a tendency to use discordancy as an effect, a way to prove that he doesn't just write pop songs. But, when the atonality is pasted on, and not part of the crucial structure of the composition, it feels like just that: an effect, or worse, an affectation. The songs that work the most are the ones that rely on his natural gravitation to tunefulness. The album opener, "Out of the Blue", the big single, "11th Dimension", and the Flock-of-Seagulls-tinged "Left & Right in the Dark", in which he stretches his vocal range out of the mope he's best known for, are the highlights of the collection, and the best example of synergy between his back-handedly soulful singing and clinical approach to knob twiddling.