The Big City turns off the Bright Lights

Interpol. (Photo by sing me a song at flickr.)
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Jonathan Liu

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Three things we thought we knew in the weeks and months following September 11, 2001:

One, Rudolph Giuliani, a man of unsubtle flaws and a few, unquiet competencies, had permanently cemented his brand of dolt-dad paternalism in the minds of New Yorkers as the only form of leadership that could’ve gotten us through that day—and by a sort of bootstrapping, the eight years previous.

Two, the attack would be imprinted on the five boroughs as the defining event of the decade, if not a generation.

And three, Manhattan's Interpol—the rock band whose mournful debut LP, Turn on the Bright Lights, would be recorded in November 2001 and released nine months later—was destined to become the scenester pop laureates of those first terrible days, and of the bleeding, upper-middlebrow heart of the city for years to come.

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It's funny how things turn out. The Bloomberg administration, banally technocratic and uncommonly adult, told the lie to the first proposition. The billion-dollar implosions of Bear Stearns, AIG, and Lehman Brothers torpedoed the second: those three 2008 weekends dwarfed the loss of 16 Class-A acres in immediate economic blowback and, as unemployment swelled and public spending ebbed, most likely in final human toll as well. What killed the third?

Stern pop moralists would reflexively lay all blame on Interpol's failure to "fulfill potential," and they'd have a point. Follow-up albums Antics (2004) and Our Love to Admire (2007), hardly failures as music, somehow managed to smell both unambitious and redolent of mission creep, as desultory a composite odor on the c.v. of a rock star as on that of a president.] Stylized gloom and bass-heavy, vaguely danceable (or nod-able) dirge remained the base elements on those records, as on Bright Lights, but these came alloyed with the anxious tics—a splash of synths, a jigger of keyboards—of a band convinced they could be doing more, and without the conviction that they can. (That still gives Interpol something like half the full deck of self-awareness and pride in their work that turn-of-century contemporaries The Strokes turned out to lack entirely.) In the superegos of four earnest no-longer-so-young men, this is the sort of professional pathos that can become debilitating neurosis: as it’s extrapolated into a plot of ever-diminishing returns, one starts suspecting the formula never deserved to work.

It doesn’t help that former fans and critical backers seem to have their knives out and sharpened. Doubting the relevance of yesterday’s hot new things is a fact of life and time; questioning their competence is to risk instigating a wholesale revision(ism) of collective cultural memory, with the desperate countermeasures to match. The battle, pitched and pitchforked, for the meaning of Interpol has come to this: a self-titled non-debut album, the classic pop gambit which will signal either the hairpin of midcareer revitalization—recently, Blur (1997); Weezer (2001); janet. (1993)—or the dark, lonely slide of late-career obsolescence—Liz Phair (2003); Weezer (2008); Blink-182 (2003).

Interpol has all the obvious hall– and pockmarks of the latter. From the time it was announced, it’s been expressly sold in terms of commercial and artistic retrenchment: Interpol return to establishment indie label Matador after one middling seller (Our Love to Remember) for Capitol; they’ve likewise promised a return to the straight-ahead acute angles of Turn on the Bright Lights from some of the twinklier experiments on its successors (not a particularly long trip). When the usual music-media fetish for artistic development inverts to trumpet founding principles, an implosion of the entire mission statement, and the lineup, is never far off. And so, most ominous of all, Carlos Dengler quit the band at the close of the recording sessions for Interpol; this feels so catastrophic not primarily because he was its anchor musician—though Dengler leaves as perhaps the least-sidelined bass player since Charles Mingus, or short of that, Flea—but because he was its most intuitive trend-hound, its real-time conduit to the catwalks, the galleries, the clubs. Carlos D suddenly quitting a band is a bit like George Soros suddenly shorting the dollar: either he knows something you don’t or is prophesying a future his actions make close to self-fulfilling; either way, it behooves you to rethink your investments.

And as it happens, Interpol is too ponderous, too remote, too tactically mechanical to offer anything like the immediate identification or the melancholy profundity of those searing chords that opened “Untitled,” the opening track on Turn on the Bright Lights, in 2002. But however frigidly uncompelling an album for September 2010, it’s also an unexpectedly accomplished piece of work—likely the most polished and cogent full-length statement Interpol’s ever made. The eponymy, in other words, is not unwarranted; this is Interpol at its platonic ideal. That the unripe facsimile then sounded so much truer and nobler than the pure form now can thus hardly be their fault, not really.

So what killed a bright future as New York’s dark alpha band? As once-fawning voters and backroom fixers have had to break, ever more frequently, to Rudy Giuliani since he stopped being our mayor and started fancying himself America’s: It’s not you, Interpol. It’s us. Really.

If Interpol had really been post-punk doom prophets Joy Division, the obligatory comparison made eight years ago, by now they’d have shapeshifted into a New Order about to release Power, Corruption & Lies, fount of such infectious dance-floor standards as “Blue Monday” and “Age of Consent.”

With their coal-miner mortality rate, one never wants to wish suicide on a frontman but it’s hard not to imagine what Interpol might have been had some personal trauma invaded and upended the professional safety zone—if, in short, Interpol became more of Carlos Dengler’s band, which is to say, more beats, less buzz. Their sound has, after all, always been stranger and more heterodox than their ubiquity (Joey and Rachel kiss in a hotel-room door in the 9th season finale of ‘Friends’ to that debut album’s first track) would suggest: Interpol’s amalgamation of shoegaze atmospherics and disco bass lines, which if nothing else share a certain a mannerist rigor, seems related to the raw, lo-fi garage revivalism (remember that?) of The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Libertines and a few dozen other raucous definite articles only in the way, say, Billy Corgan’s prog-rock dreamscapes or Trent Reznor’s industrial symphonics were related to grunge—that is, formal incongruity submerged by spillover hype and shared affect.

As it happens, Interpol is their first album with Alan Moulder, the producer behind the Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails’ most definitive outings. And Moulder delivers here, setting the band’s peculiarities and departures from current rock convention in sharper relieve than ever before. “Try it On,” perhaps the standout track, starts with a brief piano trill, insistently repeated, on top of which are layered, sequentially, a constant dance backbeat, lugubrious vocals, and finally, the guitar melody. The sequence is reversed at song’s end; the effect, winningly uncanny, is to add the iterative, recombinatory quality of drum machines and sampled loops to a composition entirely played, with the exception of some electronic bleeps, by real musicians at physical instruments.

“Summer Well” similarly emphasizes striated, looping texture, with a jazzy keyboard intro reminiscent of the English band Clinic. Likewise, the current single “Barricade” is a precise, even austere, production that keeps the pas de deux between Paul Banks’s vocals and guitarist Daniel Kessler’s plucking in better balance than ever before.

Ah yes, Paul Banks’s vocals. Very much alive, the 32-year-old stands to inherit full title to Interpol’s artistic direction with Dengler gone—a proposition that his remaining bandmates must find at least a bit problematic. At issue is not his lovely baritone, which has opened up into a considerably more flexible instrument than mere Ian Curtis replica; it’s Banks’s questionable sensibilities, and sanity, as a lyricist.

The exact etiology of the Paul Banks syndrome is tough to pinpoint but I think it comes down to this: Modern rock singers, lacking the endless verses and undivided spotlight of their progenitors in country or folk, generally have to make a choice with their words: Prioritize phonology—“a mulatto / an albino / a mosquito / my libido / yeah”—or prioritize semantics—“I am the son / and the heir / of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.” As such notables show, either approach is ultimately liable to achieve brilliance. Paul Banks, however, refuses to compromise either sound or meaning, or doesn’t know he can, and so sings like a world-weary cosmopolite with the diction of a slightly pretentious 13-year-old girl, thesaurus in one hand and rhyming dictionary in the other.

In their latest form on Interpol, a Banks lyric is one that aims to stuff in a rhyme scheme as many matched letter-pairs (and triplets), and as rigid a meter, as possible, but accedes only to changing words to this end, not their intended meanings. Thus, the first verse of “Summer Well”: “The fevered plastics that seal your body / They won't stop this rain hey hey  / I was your eye in the night when the prophets fell / I said it looks like you summer well.” Unlike mosquitoes or albinos, this has the ring of semantic songwriting, but not the semantics: Are prophets metaphor for rain here or rain metaphor for prophecy, or both allegories for some third term? Is he mad about an umbrella? To achieve the rhymes, the syntax become no less tortured than the sentiments. Later in the same song, “All the while the protest will shine the same” is elaborated on or qualified by or refuted with “I rely on the process the mind will frame.”

“Lights” is a stirring, propulsive number dampened by this head-scratcher: “Don’t turn away / And leave me to plead in this hole of a place / What if I never break / Estuary won't you take me.” If “estuary” weren’t so assonant with “won’t you take me,” might banks have gone with East River?

The vaguely non-native phraseology—imagine ABBA or Ace of Base—comes to a head on “Always Malaise,” perhaps the most inexplicable and self-implicating use of a 50-cent word in a song title since Arcade Fire’s “Rococo” in August. “I will act in a certain way,” assures the chorus, “I control what I can / That's the man I am / But it pains me to say / That I do what I can / That's the man I am / (Appearing out of the shade).”

As cringe-inducing as the outcomes seem on paper (or, rather, on screen), I don’t really mean to ridicule Banks or imply his words fail the music. To the contrary, the identifiably mature style of Interpol, and Interpol, is in no small part about turning the vocals into another haunting, angular instrument—an atmospheric pursuit well served by the ubiquitous “say/way/play” and “race/place/face” couplets and quatrains.

But understand the oddness of this sort of songwriting and its foreigness to the mainland of pop. Though he’s distinctly verbose, Banks is quite possibly indie rock’s least confessional singer–lyricist ever. Fashioned into awkward stanzas so unintuitive to natural language they sound like they must be someone’s ancient scripture, his words abandon personal meaning or local relevance to fully fuse with the ink-black instrumentation in something like ritualized lamentation. Say “I control what I can / That's the man I am” with enough conviction and loud enough guitars, and the hackish nursery rhyme may just turn into something like the stylized sound of collective will, subterranean and brooding.

Which gets, finally, at Interpol’s perhaps inevitable failure to maintain the early significance ascribed to them in and outside New York. On Turn on the Bright Lights, a young Paul Banks was capable of even clunkier clunkers than he is today: “Her stories are boring and stuff,” he wailed about some unfortunate girl. “She’s always calling my bluff.” To, presumably, another: “you’re the only person who’s completely certain that there’s nothing here to be into.” To the least fortunate: “I'm gonna pull you in close / Gonna wrap you up tight / Gonna play with the braids that you came here with tonight.” (It’s best to regard “Well she was my catatonic sex toy love-joy diver” as, what it sounds like: an incantation for raising a zombie.)

These lines were as silly then as they are now; the difference is we were inclined to believe them primal, vernacular evocations of time and place, and Banks an unpracticed prep-school savant rather than the guy struggling over “Please explore my love’s endurance / Please endure my love’s exploitations” (Interpol’s “Try it On”). Who could hear the really quite meaningless “subway she is a porno / pavements they are a mess” on Bright Lights’ “NYC” and not think of an acute grief and spiritual solidarity diffused across eight million people and 470 square miles?

Might Interpol seem naïve and stylized and irrelevant now because we’ve discovered the romantic melancholia of collective tragedy to be false, or at least not truly invoked by that Tuesday in September? When 9/11 propriety dead-ends in the farce of wondering exactly how many blocks is too few blocks between Ground Zero and a mosque, Turn on the Bright Lights becomes, like Bright Lights, Big City, just another record of urban(e) self-flattery in the long boom on its way to the real-estate peak, 2006.

A year from now, New York City will celebrate a decade of celebrating its resiliency. I doubt anyone, official or otherwise, will play Interpol to return to the latent confusion and oddly engorging nihilism of that first year. The triumphalism of Jay-Z will reign instead—or, alternatively, the good cheer of two or three intervening scenes of Brooklyn indies—and it will be honest.