Interpol – Their undoing

At the apogee of the post-punk revival, you’d have been sensible in assuming that Interpol could reasonably expect to win big. With two albums under their belt, each with one foot on critical acclaim and the other on a reasonable level of commercial success, the band penned a doubtless lucrative contract with Capitol/Parlophone and so began the logical next step in their career, on a major label.

Paul Banks, Interpols resolutely miserable frontman

Except, showboating their new riches, they then made an embarrassingly mediocre album – Our Love To Admire. This major-label debut boasted all kinds of studio gimmickry (the synthesised oboe solo in “Pioneer To The Falls” springs instantly to mind), complicated song structures (I don’t think they’ll be repeating the reverse-vocal passage in “Wrecking Ball” any time soon), and the sticky production fingers of Rich Costey, who had at the time triumphantly helmed the production of Muse’s Black Holes And Revelations. Two things that the album lacked, however, were the tunes, and the cool. Our Love To Admire wasn’t filled to the brim with genuinely bad songs (though I’ll gladly bestow that accolade on “Rest My Chemistry”); the problem derived more from the fact that too many of the songs were bland, cheesy, forgettable and… uncool.

There, I said it. Somewhere along the line, between touring in support of Antics and the tortured gestation of Our Love…, Interpol wound up losing their cool. Where previously Paul Banks traded in a kind of lovably abstract circumlocution, now his lyrics were just plain wince-inducing. Where before Daniel Kessler had woven intriguing guitar-based journeys between the chords of songs, he now beat a sledgehammer through songs with over-processed, over-compressed textures. In an act of brutal criminality, Interpol forgot that it was their rhythm section that had made the band, downplaying at their peril Carlos Dengler‘s elastic disco basslines and Sam Fogarino‘s tricksy stickwork.

The closing track on Antics was, as far as I can make out, about a father and son arguing on a boat, Talented Mr. Ripley-style, written from the point of view of a sea urchin.

Track two on Our Love To Admire was about wanting a threesome to rescue your relationship.

Lucky, then, that for album number four, sophisticated Paul has showed up for the lyrics workshop, dispelling the tired rockstar clichés that so plagued its predecessor. But does the music match the lyrical and thematic intrigue?

Well, not quite. For one thing, the band appear to have developed a taste for some pretty unfashionable techniques, possibly taken from an instruction manual for a previous version of Rich Costey. So we get heaps of multi-tracked vocals tackling every possible harmony; oddly jarring drum machines in place of Sam Fog’s natural talent; synthesised orchestral arrangements floating on scummy washes of guitar. So far, so uncool.

There are songs that try and serve up the band’s former breed of choppy post-punk, like “Success” and lead single “Barricade”. These would be fine, if a bit derivative, except that they manage to sound at the same time laboured and skew-whiff. This is Type 1 Uncool: Forgivably uncool.

Then there are songs that try and improve upon the atmospherics of the previous album, shoehorning in lounge piano and tepid string arrangements and god-knows-what-else. The finale, entitled “The Undoing”, sees Paul Banks pleading with a Spanish version of himself. Toy Story 3, this is not. Songs like this, and also “Try It On” are Type 2 Uncool: Look Away Now, Modestly, Before They Attempt Something Even More Foolish.

Though I haven’t given this album up for dead yet, there is a line of criticism about Interpol so spot on I feel further analysis is possibly redundant. In the words of Dan Nishimoto, writing for Prefix Magazine,

Where they used to sound like the crackling of a subway car rounding a bend or the seediest alleys of New York in the pre-dawn hours, here they sound like alt-rock renderings of what moody post-punk is supposed to sound like.

Bands usually self-title their albums to set out their position. If it’s a debut, this is the band’s pocket-sized introduction of what to expect from them in the coming years (or, in the modern age, the coming fortnight, while their hype-inflated worth is still riding high on Twitter). If it’s an album later in the band’s career, this suggests a definitive account with subtle reinvention, as if this is from where future listeners should draw a template. If this was Interpol’s ambition, then I am tempted to say Carlos Dengler was justified in walking away from the band as soon as the album was completed, so that he does not feature in such a template.

And this wasn’t even supposed to be a review of the album.

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