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What I’m listening to this week: Interpol

August 4, 2009

Turn On The Bright Lights – 2002

Interpol‘s debut album Turn On The Bright Lights can be classified a number of different ways.  The band is from New York and is tied to the new wave revival scene, but clearly most dominant is the British post-punk influence.  Famously, Interpol is most often associated with (and accused of ripping-off) the legendary UK post-punk band Joy Division.  Though the heavy Ian Curtis affect is inescapable, particularly in Interpol singer Paul Banks’ brooding deep voice, Turn On The Bright Lights has a myriad of other shades to it as well; everything from retro art rock to obvious indie leanings.  It’s a talented and determined band that can somehow combine all of those things together – and mind you, it’s no accident – into a solid, cohesive album that was also one of the most highly praised and most successful debuts of 2002.

Turn On The Bright Lights begins, fittingly, with an untitled track that defines everything the album is about.  The key words for this album are moody, atmospheric, dark, and lush, and “Untitled” hits every mark, filling its time with reverberating guitars, calculated drum patterns, and two single lyric lines delivered lightly by Banks over and over.  It’s sufficiently hypnotic and intriguing by design.  Out of “Untitled” emerges the second track, “Obstacle 1”, which is probably the point on the album where Interpol most earns the comparisons to Joy Division; Banks’ vocals are darkly forceful and almost detached as he sings: “It’s different now that I’m poor and aging/I’ll never see this face again/You go stabbing yourself in the neck”.  The music itself is propulsive and extremely tight, merging with the vocals to claustrophobic effect, especially in the last third of the song when the lyrics become repetitive and sung even more fervently.

“NYC” is where more of that art bend is clear; the production is shimmery, and the vocals are altered just enough, creating a creepy and hollow ambiance over the washed out guitars.  The lyrics might arguably be rubbish, but it’s more about mood here and the mood is deliberately – and successfully – planned.  The next song, “PDA”, is a retro force to be reckoned with; it’s easily one of the best tracks on Turn On The Bright Lights.  Banks sings the cryptically forboding lyrics in a powerful monotone bellow, and the new wave influenced music is unrelenting, with chiming, hyper guitar work, broken up by the hook-laden, instantly addictive chorus.  “Say Hello To The Angels” extends the revival mantle even further, sounding like you could find it blaring out of a small club in New York in the ’80s and featuring a distinct contrast between the upbeat musical track (that’s also a little looser for Interpol) and the still commanding vocals.

“Obstacle 2” continues on that slightly broken-down line; it’s a more straight indie rock track, heavy on bass and drum beats without as much of the gloominess.  Despite all of that, it doesn’t detract in the least from the mission of Turn On The Bright Lights and acts rather as a pleasant temporary distraction.  And that distraction is also well thought out because the next song, “Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down” is six and a half minutes of Joy Division-flavored tension.  “Stella…” isn’t the strongest track on the album, but it might just be the centerpiece anyway.  It’s a full-on progression of all the pieces of Interpol; post-punk, art rock with complexity even if it doesn’t quite match up to the ambition.  At the end of Turn On The Bright Lights, “Roland” has the same intensity as “PDA” and “Obstacle 1”, with bleakly funny lyrics.  “The New” and “Leif Erikson” close out the album in a neat package, recalling the “Untitled” track at the start, both flooded with a wall of flourishing guitars and reverb and careful drum rhythms.

Turn On The Bright Lights might not have been the revelation that many who were nostalgic for the despondent glum of bands like Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen thought it would be, but it’s certainly a very good album.  Interpol didn’t set out to recreate those records because they could have if they had tried by impression alone.  Turn On The Bright Lights is able to stand on its own because of the unique characteristics of the band, the attention to detail, and an excellent sense of atmosphere.  Get it for what it represented in 2002, but also just because it’s a strong listen still today.

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