Tag Archives: interpol

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.

White goddess, red goddess, black temptress of the sea

In Dan Weiss’s review of Interpol frontman Paul Bank’s forthcoming solo single, “The Fun That We Have”, the writer suggests that while “All the guys fall for the languid Turn On The Bright Lights … the girls I know tend to prefer the blockier Antics.” I may be the exception to the rule, in that I feel there’s a compelling case for suggesting that Antics is the superior album; indeed, that it may be one of those albums that I irrationally associate with ‘perfection’. Other such albums have included, over the years, Tortoise’s TNT, Amon Tobin’s Supermodified, and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. To this list, I believe we can add Antics, because it succeeds in continuing the importance of mood and atmosphere that Interpol established on their debut, while attaching greater importance on the quality of the songwriting.

Turn On The Bright Lights is an alarmingly accomplished debut: from the very off, its echoey, jangling guitar signal a kind of reflective anxiety and unease that never lets up. Through the elegiac swooning of NYC and the slightly malevolent swagger of PDA, the intricate interplay of guitars provides the ideal counterpoint to the locked-in tautness of the rhythm section. The emotional centre of the album, Hands Away, with its beautiful swells of orchestral slush, is book-ended by two tightly-wound pop songs in Say Hello To Angels and Obstacle 2. The second half of the album finds the band a little in the wilderness, meandering through Stella… and Roland seemingly on autopilot, relying on atmospherics to succeed any boredom. Finally, in the closing brace of The New and Leif Erikson, the band secure their foothold once more with a pair of gorgeous, engaging epics that take unexpected turns and dives. The album is a delicious journey, and I’ve probably done little so far to dispel this suggestion. But, crucially, for me, it provides too few highlights. Taken as a whole, it’s an extremely successful portrait of a city, a culture, a social class. Taken apart, it only really contains one standout track – The New – and the overriding impression of a band reaching out far beyond their limits (which is undoubtedly a good thing) is more than anything else a product of the album’s interstitial outros. Collectively, it’s epic. Singularly, it’s just really good.

Antics, by contrast, announces itself in a considerably more upbeat fashion, with the organ-led swell of Next Exit, and proceeds, over the course of 42 minutes, to never put a foot wrong on the individual level of the song, and indeed the overall texture of the album. It’s both an album of singles, and a single body of an album. The structure and pacing of Turn On The Bright Lights was a loose-limbed thing; Antics follows a much more interesting pattern: the first side consists mainly of snappy, bright pop songs, broken only by the wandering beauty of Take You On A Cruise; the second side, beginning with Not Even Jail, is far more adventurous, with a series of far-reaching performances brought momentarily back to earth by the brief C’mere. As on its predecessor, Antics closes with a stunning couple, with the maximal arrangement of Length Of Love leading beautifully into A Time To Be So Small, which appears to depict a father-and-son argument taking place in a boat, from the point of view of a sea urchin, watching the dispute from the ocean beneath said boat. This is fascinating, far-out stuff, and it’s extraordinary how we never feel a sense of ridicule at being stretched so much by what superficially appears to be a four-piece straight-up post-punk revival.

The reason I think Antics is the better album, then, is because when it sticks to the pop formula, it gets better returns than before, and, when the band take off their dancing shoes and put on their thinking caps, the album’s exploratory epics put just as much experimentation and texture into each song as Turn On The Bright Lights achieved on the whole album. That’s not a criticism of Turn On The Bright Lights, more a satisfying reflection on just how accomplished Antics is. Of particular importance are Take You On A Cruise and Public Pervert. On the former, mournful, bleating pails of guitar and feedback lead masterfully into a an almost mantra-like passage of whispered chanting; on the latter, a simple arpeggiated bassline combines with lilting, tremolo guitar work to set up a raging beast of a song that captures perfectly the feeling of the lyrical refrain “So swoon baby, starry night…” It’s a rare moment of emotional unity on an album otherwise populated by unsettling and macabre imagery, as in the closer’s chorus of “cadaverous mobs”.

Antics is very much the kind of album that, when it recedes into silence at the end, one wants nothing more than to conjure it into being again. It manages to assert a continuous instrumental virtuosity that never ceases to surprise, which, combined with the best collection of lyrics Paul Banks has committed to tape, breaks surprising ground given the band’s sparse set-up. More so than its predecessor, it succeeds not only in the big picture, but also in the minutiæ, and for this, it remains one of the most pristinely unhindered albums I own. I wouldn’t change a single thing.

You’re bringing me down

I’m man enough to admit that the following albums leave me pretty much in tears by the time they finish:

  • Amon Tobin – Supermodified (occasionally)
  • Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
  • Blur – 13
  • Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
  • Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
  • Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights
  • Jaga Jazzist – What We Must
  • Jonny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood
  • LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
  • Low – Drums And Guns
  • M83 – Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
  • Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
  • Portishead – Third
  • Pulp – We Love Life
  • Radiohead – OK Computer
  • Radiohead – Kid A
  • The Shins – Wincing The Night Away
  • TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
  • Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

What does this tell me? Well, other than that I’m possibly an emotional trainwreck, it also suggests that I’m a real sucker for killer album closers, notably those that are long, protracted, portentous and often outstay their welcome. Sometimes, these final songs are emotionally charged to such a degree that I feel utterly drained. At other times, it’s just the pent-up sadness that eventually emerges from an album full of grief, depression or sadness. When a songwriter lays his soul bare on record, it’s hard for me to not empathise.

This has made me sound like someone close to the brink, which I’m not, so I’ll stop now.