They were prophesied as the new Joy Division of the U.S. indie rock scene associated with gloomy baritone vocals, uniquely odd lyrics and an as cold as concrete sound. With their 2002 debut album Turn on the Bright Lights the New York based Interpol contributed one of the most important pop albums of the 2000s. Their distinctive signature shines through each song and perhaps this record carries one of the symptomatic styles of the past decade.
These are the facts: The band got together in Manhattan and was located around the New York City indie scene. Lead guitarist Daniel Kessler and bassist/keyboarder Carlos Dengler had met in a philosophy class at New York University where Kessler studied French, film and literature and Dengler philosophy and history. Only weeks later singer and guitarist Paul Banks who encountered Kessler on a study abroad program in Paris joined Interpol at the age of 19. Kessler worked for several record labels where he socialized in the music business and expanded contacts to other musicians. It was his major role to bring the band together and distribute their early records. Dengler, the child of a Colombian mother and a German father, became famous beyond his bass playing as a Lower East Side party animal and for experimenting with Nazi aesthetics in his clothing style. Banks and Kessler were both born in England and moved to the United States in early childhood. Finally drummer Samuel Fogarino joined Interpol in 2000 as oldest band member with more than ten years of previous band experience.
After formation in 1997 the band had to wait five years to record their first full length studio album until contracted with American indie label Matador Records in early 2002. The album had been recorded shortly before in Connecticut at the end of 2001 with British producer Gareth Jones who has also worked with Depeche Mode, German industrial-experimental band Einstürzende Neubauten, Nick Cave and Grizzly Bear. It was released in the summer of 2002 with eleven tracks of three to six minutes and a full length of 49 minutes.
Turn on the Bright Lights was recorded immediately after 9/11. It is hard to say if the anxious, angry and paranoid atmosphere that arose in New York and the whole United States after the largest terror attack in U.S. history had a direct influence on the band's creations. But in any case the feelings of wounded and confused America parallel very much with what the band expresses. From where we stand today it is irony of history they called themselves Interpol back in the 90s – the organization that was (among others) assigned to persecute Al Qaida and Bin Laden for more than ten years.
Ranged between a revival of post-punk à la Joy Division and indie rock from The Smith to The Strokes the record received overall critical acclaim in professional reviews. It was highly ranked by Pitchfork Media (#1 album of 2002, #3 album of 2000-2004 and #20 album of 2000s), Rolling Stone (#59 album of 2000s) and New Musical Express (#10 album of 2002 and #8 album of 2000s).
Three music videos were made based on the album. In NYC eyes, ties and aeroplanes are put together on negative exposure. Obstacle 1 impresses with a more professional editing to show the band play in a sterile white hall interspersed with a faceless muse in a warm and cosy hotel room writhing under gravitational and psychic compulsion. The entanglement of building, city, technology, person, movement and perspective then is at length climaxed in PDA.
The album opens with a monotonous one-string-riff, sombrely delayed and resounded until a full and warm bass and light-footed drums enter. A lightning chord is added several times to the easy composition which reminds of Led Zeppelin's 1969 hit Whole Lotta Love. Unlike this hard rock reference Interpol's chorus and verse are shuffled into each other. There is no repetition of the concise lyrics (laconically in voice and words: surprise, sometimes, will come around / I will surprise you sometime / I'll come around). The singular structure linearly heads for continuity. A bridge feeds into the end which is introduced by a mean frequency guitar tone that remains the same for many rhythmic times. Like a noisy malfunction, an alarm signal or a menacing siren it only gains harmonic coherence when the other instruments finally empty and weaken.
A staccato guitar together with an overdriven barre riff then consolidates the offensive vocal melody in the second track Obstacle 1. Paul Banks diffuse lyrics – it's different now that I'm poor and aging, I'll never see this face again / you go stabbing yourself in the neck – begin to extrapolate an indeterminate texture from lo-fi megaphoned vocals. The singer and lyricist once admitted in an interview that most of his lines don't make sense in a classical way. At this point his textual output becomes even more gripping for we have reason to assume a poetic unconscious: we can find new ways of living make playing only logical harm / and we can top the old times, claim-making that nothing else will change.
The warm and thick riff guitar spins forward through the tightly constructed 3:30 minutes of Roland who is said to be from Poland: my best friend's a butcher, he has sixteen knives. Matching the sample of compact slogans Banks vocalizes the lines like enthusiastic paroles whereas none of them contents any explicit material of the traditional barricade speeches in whose style they are wedged. Interpol thus are undeniably far from being a punk band for that would originally be forced to bark aloud and earnest. In this regard it is a certainly not unintended paradox of the musical punk culture that it tends to make itself redundant and ludicrous and therefore necessarily stultifies its own attitude. Instead the post-punk revivalists of Interpol employ this established pop-cultured pattern of short form and content to break with the usual expectations and to ironise outdated fashions – as well as obsolete manners of present day, too of course. But within all this postmodern cynical distance there is still and clamantly something serious about the lyrics. It is what I called the unconscious meaning of poetry or its preconscious content that – abundantly vague and blurred – must be refined from everyday experience. Roland exemplifies what's going on in the poet's mind: he severed segments secretly, you like that / he always took the time to speak with me / I liked him for that / he severed segments so secretly, you like that / he was growing on me. If we don't consider any artistical epiphanies all of this may simply be seen as a modern lifestyle surplus of no practical use that is transformed into verse or prose and thereby gains the listener's appeal. We dwellers of the contemporary westernised world are a Paul Banks taking a narrow view of a big city.
And hence it isn't peculiar at all that – on light ambient instrumentation – the near and intimate chanting of Hands Away spherically addresses some mystic meat: will you put my hands away? / will you be my man? / serve it up, don't wait / let's see about this ham / oh, what happened? / home spun desperation's knowing / inside your cover's always blown.
Another time the catchy, impelling and monotonously rattled down riff in PDA is preceded by moony chords that reverberate in NYC, the album's slowest song – I had seven faces / thought I knew which one to wear. Here, with sparking drums a cynic ode to an unconcerned city is performed: the subway is a porno / the pavements they are a mess / I know you've supported me for a long time / somehow I'm not impressed / but New York cares. The album's eponymous line appears in a lethargic chant: it's up to me now, turn on the bright lights. It is exactly these bright lights that Interpol turn on around our by now ethereally buzzing heads to bring some peace and boldness back in our messily pornographic lives.
After this Say Hello to the Angels is probably the most European-influenced track of the record. It starts with an instrumental arrangement and a vocal style that could have equally been found on the contemporaneously released Libertines' debut album Up the Bracket as well as it foreshadows the Scottish Franz Ferdinand of the subsequent years of the 2000s.
But back to the New Yorkers' essence. Around a solid composition with the usual Interpol sound in the seventh track (Obstacle 2) violent and ludicrous assault is announced (I'm gonna pull you in close / gonna wrap you up tight / gonna play with the braids that you came here with tonight / I'm gonna hold your face, and toast the snow that fell / because friends don't waste wine when there's words to sell) and love is found (if you don't trust yourself for at least one minute each day / well you should trust in this, girl, cause loving is coming our way / if you can fix me up, girl, we'll go a long way / take my love in real small doses / … / it took time then I found you).
Another bewitched and symbolically rather indecent romance is struck up with Stella (at the bottom of the ocean she dwells / from crevices caressed by fingers / and fat blue serpent swells / Stella I love you) whose schizophrenic depression stresses the famous Freudian water metaphor, i.e. the unconscious: there's something that's invisible / there's some things you can't hide / try to detect you when I'm sleeping / in a wave you say goodbye. Ocean, love, water, Freud. Enough to carry home from this song which is the album's longest track and with its six and a half minutes it effortlessly absorbs the listener's attention in every played second.
Nonetheless Interpol's debut record doesn't manage to continue that way and can't avoid an unfortunate disenchantment right before the outro track. A poor relation like The New is neither booting the album with inventively composed sound nor with a gripping instrumental structure. The childish lyrics sum up the lax and clumsy downside of Paul Banks poetry which is – at least this time – not even underlined by a wink of pregnant Dada.
But we are compensated by the cathedral outro Leif Erikson named after the Viking explorer who is said to be the first European to discover North America on a trip from Iceland via Greenland around the medieval year of 1000. It contemplatively closes the record in a subtle and by all means honourable manner: she says it helps with the lights out / her rabid glow is like braille to the night. A virtuoso chorus makes the flesh crawl (the clock is set for nine but you know you're gonna make it eight / so that you two can take some time, teach each other to reciprocate / the clock is set for nine but you know you're gonna make it eight / all the people that you've loved they're all bound to leave some keepsakes) until the last verse collects the album's poetic appeal set between interline antics and unwitting insights: she says brief things, her love's a pony / my love's subliminal.
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