New York’s Interpol began to coalesce around former NYU student Daniel Kessler in 1998, and by 2000 settled on the lineup of Kessler (guitar), Brit compatriot Paul Banks (vocals/guitar), Carlos Dengler (bass, keyboards) and Sam Fogarino (drums). Initially playing local venues, they were chosen as the third installment for Scottish label Chemikal Underground’s Fukd I.D. series. Positive UK exposure led to Interpol recording a John Peel session, and the buzz began to build steadily and somewhat organically, unlike the more frantic hype that surrounded some of their New York contemporaries after September 11, 2001.
Okay. Joy Division. Might as well say it right off the bat. Comparisons to Manchester’s finest are pretty much de rigueur in any review of Interpol. Indeed, the debt is more than obvious at first glance — dark CD covers, spare song titles, funereal tones, strident strained vocals. But obvious comparisons can sometimes be as lazy as illuminating. Joy Division’s terrible power came from the vastness of the caverns they created around them. It was the all-too-human attempt to fill those cathedral-like howling spaces with the fragile, courageous baritone of Ian Curtis’ voice that gave their music its flawed and desolate majesty. Joy Division were minimalists, icy and jagged. If anything, Interpol are the polar opposite. Banks’ tenor is almost buried beneath shimmering layers of guitar, washes of synth, and rivers of liquid bass. Interpol’s overall sound comes across as dense and lush (albeit in an oppressive way): claustrophobic as opposed to agoraphobic. This is a post-Kid A world, after all. While it’s clear that the band wears its northwest UK influences unblinkingly — Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths, even the Chameleons are lurking among the melodies and textures — it’s just as true that their musical ambition seems to match such sturdy roots.
Anticipation for an Interpol album was sustained by a flurry of EP releases, all three of which contain “PDA” (for public displays of affection, not personal digital assistants). The driving, muscular song underwent considerable evolution between its first appearance on Fukd I.D. #3 and the eventual full-length album (on which the lyrics mutated and the production smoothed out some early rawness). The first EP also contains “Precipitate” (a rhythmic love song with a tinge of threat), the oddly exhilarating and relatively up-tempo “Roland” and the punchy instrumental “5.” The self-released eponymous EP also contains “PDA” and “Precipitate” but adds “Song 7” (an ambitious item in which the bittersweet sentiments are echoed by the melodic/atonal interplay of the guitars and vocals) and “A Time to Be So Small.” The identically titled Matador release (which was recorded by Peter Katis of the Philistines Jr., who also engineered the band’s debut album, at that band’s Connecticut studio) offers the ubiquitous “PDA” once more, the slow-building but ultimately stirring “NYC” and the surly, directionless “Specialist.” The middle track is a standout, an ambivalent and affectingly awkward hymn to the city of the title, which meanders bewilderingly at first — “Subway she is a porno and the pavements they are a mess/I know you’ve supported me for a long time/Somehow I’m not impressed” — but builds to a desperate yet authentic-sounding resolution: “It’s up to me now/Turn on the bright lights.”
From there, the full-length Turn on the Bright Lights demonstrates all the tension between the band’s considerable potential toward independent flight and the quicksand-pull of its influences. It really is very difficult to hear the album without being at least occasionally reminded of those other (almost exclusively English) bands. The untitled opener is somber and atmospheric in a Disintegration-era Cure kind of way, although the oddly sweet words are understated and very nearly lost in the ominous sonic sheets within which they’re wrapped: “I will surprise you sometime/I’ll come around/when you’re down.” Banks’ voice, once again, struggles to emerge. And not only does “Say Hello to the Angels” sound as if the Smiths’ rhythm section were on hand, some of the lyrics in the durable “PDA” could be from Morrissey: “Yours is the only version of my desertion that I could ever subscribe to.” Thankfully, there’s a lot more going on in these songs than empty (cough) atmosphere or well-dressed (hack) charming men; the individual members of Interpol have considerable talent and feel; and to be sure, that old cliché about parts and sums and wholes actually does apply here. Forget the silly clothing and image distractions; there are some startling emotion-drenched moments on Turn on the Bright Lights. For every oddity that simply takes up space (“Her stories are boring and stuff/She’s always calling my bluff”), there are moments that genuinely disturb or stir — often in the same song. In “Obstacle 1,” the Curtis-like desperation over a rush of hair-raising noise begins to sound more like Interpol and less like 1980 when you allow your skepticism to subside. Likewise, the intoxicating “Leif Erikson” is rich, melodic yet wholly surprising. In its own words, “It’s like learning a new language.”
The key question with Interpol is whether it’s possible to get past the obvious influences and discern a true spark of originality, a new language both gloomy and exhilarating. For those who can, Turn on the Bright Lights is a dark and luscious reward.