tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
For a while in 2002 and 2003 it seemed as if there was a future in bands willing to issue forth an unending churn while singers clogged with ennui pontificated above. The Strokes and Interpol (and their not-actually-legion followers) made hay from the contrast between the cryptic gnomisms and strangled cries of their frontmen and the steady, almost Krautrock-ish pulse of the music; those instruments fenced in the voices, gave them something to beat against, and the gaping entropy of those voices and their words perversely empowered the almost programmatic mesh of the sound. It's not the first time this kind of contrast was used in rock, but whatever the bands’ other attributes or the poor quality of their more recent work, Room on Fire and Turn on the Bright Lights were some of the most successful iterations of the technique.
“PDA” (Personal Digital Assistant? Public Display of Affection? Something else?) starts out as one of the most satisfying examples of this tension; Paul Banks is singing the same kind of snide doggerel he uses to such great effect throughout the album (“You're so cute when you're sedated, dear”), while Sam Fogarino plays relentless and the other three seemingly lock into the same part for five minutes. There's a little variation in the bass behind the two guitars, but those guitars don't seem to budge; even during the chorus they just cycle, ad infinitum.
That chorus alone is one of the best examples of the power of this approach; at first you think that Banks might repeat “Sleep tight, grim rite / We have two hundred couches for you to” forever, especially when he does it once more than you're expecting to the second time through. Eventually each chorus cracks open with half-soaring “sleep tonight” from Banks, but even then thing seems stymied. It's merely a return to the lattice of the verses rather than a break from them.
“PDA” could have productively kept this up for the full five minutes and been a perfectly satisfying song, still one of the more immediate ones on the surprisingly diverse Turn on the Bright Lights. I'm a sucker for the kind of push-and-pull that I've been talking about so far, and any song only needs one part if it's a really good one. But I want to talk about backing vocals and codas; I want to talk about the minute that makes “PDA” maybe the single exemplar of Interpol's style to date, the minute that my brain drags up when it decides my inner soundtrack isn't dramatic enough, the part that makes me think of late night Greyhound buses (they're a lot safer up here; even students and commuters use them) and walking home to empty houses.
About four minutes in, Banks finishes the last chorus and the guitars just keep going; eventually the beat changes a little and a slight organ comes in; the same guitar part subtly takes on a feeling of uplift (actually one of the two instruments begins playing a counterpoint, but unless you're intent on the guitars rather than the song as a whole, it's not very noticeable, and it doesn't feel different, which is more important). And Daniel Kessler starts singing, behind the music as Banks was in front. It's mostly a wail, but you can make out words; there's nothing to see, nothing to do, and then he just settles for a couple of “ah-oh”s, epiloguing his straining gasp over the walls of the song with a little resignation.
The track halts in time with the last “ah-oh”. Pretty simple; like most Seconds, atomization of the moment (or minute) is inversely proportional to understanding it. But if you have the song around, put it on again and list to that minute. There's nothing wrong with a song that uses the kind of internal tension “PDA” does that never resolves that tension, in fact there's often a lot right with the fact that nothing ever breaks lose. There's even an analogy to be made with the ferociously controlled likes of Television's Marquee Moon, where every guitar line sounds meticulously inevitable.
But Interpol here, without ever so much as varying significantly the guitars that have been pinning Banks down all track, send the song soaring up and over the fences and gates of the structure of the rest of it. If the ideal video for “PDA” mostly consists of some sort of urban, claustrophobic environment (the subway, a tenement block, an office warren), that last minute and Kessler's airborne lament is a last pulling away of the camera, a sudden refocusing away from the small, caged particulars to some sort of escape. His voice doesn't quite make it, but the song does.