hen I first listened to Turn On The Bright Lights, I was astounded. How the hell could anyone actually like this shit? It’s repetitive, completely unoriginal, the lead singer apes Ian Curtis to no end — and most of all, it wasn’t exciting. If I wanted to listen to new revival rock that enthralled me and captured my attention, I’d listen to the fucking Strokes. At least Julian has a little variety.
I was astounded not only by the low quality of music — but by the almost universal accolade attached to this album. What was it that made this band so great? Why do they get the heaps of hype and critical acclaim, instead of, say, the new massively creative Wire record? I was furious with the music-listening community — so much so, I thought I’d create a scathing write-up, and show everyone how hollow this music was.
But a peculiar thing happened along the way: like so many other great records, with multiple listens comes the key. I knew Turn On The Bright Lights was getting under my skin when my band wrote a song that unknowingly almost parodied “Untitled;” when I would start laughing randomly thinking of Paul Banks intoning “oh yeah, oh yeah,” like he was screaming to escape his shackles of boredom in “Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down;” when these songs were getting stuck in my head all god damn day. And when I finally admitted to myself that this was better than I thought — no, it was a great record — I was in.
This album is special for so many reasons. Think of Interpol as a downbeat Strokes — derivative like you wouldn’t believe, but with a fresh spin, these songs sound new as ever. And let’s just face it, these are great songs; swirls of single-note guitar cave in on top of thumping, near-disco bass at times, reminiscent of Joy Division staccato, ‘70s New York guitar interplay, and of a shoegazer wash. Achingly familiar, yes — but when’s the last time you heard this together? Lead singer Paul Banks’ has a thick, deep pain in his voice, but it never quivers, and his baritone chant rides triumphantly on top of every note and every thwack at the kit.
Turn On The Bright Lights is one of those achingly cool depressive records, the type where every note is crisp and fits, where the lead singer’s drained voice is pushed way up front, and gives you that sudden mental picture of what was going on. I could see bassist Carlos D plucking his open E-string, hammering on the G. I saw those rehearsals, where the band’s ridiculous new wave haircuts flopped over their faces as they hunched over on their instruments. But most of all, this music is so full of emotion. The incessant staccato drilling on “Obstacle 1" matches Banks’ forced, confident-but-nervous “she can’t read, she can’t read” with a plunging, deep sonic assault, mirroring his pain.
What struck me most upon multiple listens was the bass. I don’t know about this — obviously, Carlos must love Peter Hook, with all those two-note melodies — but this sounds like Manchester, circa 1989. The upbeat, fluxuating bass on “Leif Erikson” sounds like a direct lift from “Step On,” and a handful of these songs bring to mind a controlled Mani. The bottom end rides triumphantly along every song, nearly pushing the guitar out of the picture, battling for supremacy in the band. The contrast, though, between this apparent and dazzling bass work and precise Television guitar interplay is what makes this album magical. Interpol might wear their influences on their sleeve, but what a kaleidoscopic variety it is!
While the bulk of these tracks are basically, well, “suicide rock” as my friend calls it, a few of these numbers simply rock. “Say Hello To The Angels,” an upbeat highlight, starts off with a hint of feedback, only to make for an apt comparison piece to a, say, “Last Nite.” Chugging, ferocious guitar riff. Offbeat, almost syncopated drums. Then when the singer comes in, the guitar/bass mix turns into a jangly rocker. The big surprise though is the subtle chord changes — guitars spill onto one another, root notes lay on top of fringe notes, a trickling high hat suddenly takes place of triumphant drumming, and a steady bass combine for an eight-mile high leading up to the chorus. When Banks wails again and the spiky guitars return, though, the song grabs you by the crotch (as only mope-rock can) for multi-harmonied ride.
Over the highly passionate music, though, Banks’ impersonal, detached croon spits some truly odd lyrics. “Subway is a porno,” a line that subscribes to the Tweedy/Beck school of non sequitur can be endearing, but it’s simply frustrating when we get a heartfelt line like “yours is the only version of my desertion that I could ever subscribe to” in the next song. But maybe that’s the point. Is Interpol supposed to be frustrating? Harsh? Melodic? Who knows. But, like Loveless, Low, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, this is a record that’s to be questioned when listened to.
Reviewed by: Sam Bloch
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01