Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights

by Jon Burke Rating:9 Release Date:2002-08-20
Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights
Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights

I stumbled upon Interpol when I illegally downloaded (like everyone else back then) their first EP in early-2002. Then came a bunch of MP3 demos and finally Turn On The Bright Lights in all its spiffy glory. Though at the time I couldn’t put a finger on it, what I ultimately loved so much about the record was its sincerity. Interpol was willing to show listeners they gave a shit about more than just cultivating their sense of detached irony. Front man Paul Banks crooned about: love, isolation, city life and creeping fascism and it was all so cool and yet so sincere. This kind of bold, honest, passion is what had driven so many music geeks like me over to hip hop prior to the turn of the century… Because, while there’s something to be said for lo-fi tongues buried in postmodern cheeks, there’s also something vital about caring enough about one’s craft to make a lasting statement as poignant as Turn On The Bright Lights.

TOTBL’s opener, “Untitled” establishes the album’s mood—a fraught, gothic, bass-heavy sound punctuated by soaring guitars and Banks’ plaintive vocals. Right out of the box, bassist Carlos Dengler establishes himself as a major figure in the band’s sound. Dengler’s bass, on the early Interpol records, is every bit as important as Sam Fogarino’s drums in terms of driving Interpol’s rhythm section. Stylistically, Dengler’s playing was reminiscent of Peter Hook’s work with Joy Division—another major influence on Interpol’s post-punk sound as a whole. Like Hook, Dengler refused to take a backseat to anyone in shaping the band’s sound and, in particular, visual aesthetic.

The visual aesthetic played a major role in differentiating Interpol from other NYC post-punk revival acts. The Strokes, arguably the progenitors of the early-aughts post-punk revival movement, dressed in a sloppy retro-casual style reminiscent of The Stooges or The Ramones. Interpol, on the other hand, wore dark, three-piece suits, more in the style of The Jam. Musically speaking, The Jam’s biting guitars and bass-forward sound were also a major influence on Interpol. Tracks like “PDA” and “Say Hello To The Angels” have, at their core, that same swing which caused The Jam to stand out from the rest of the punk rock fray on tracks like “A Town Called Malice” and “In The City.”

Interpol’s secret weapon however isn’t any specific influence. Instead, the band’s homage to the best of gothic post-punk only becomes transcendent when coupled with Banks’ wonderfully abstruse lyrics. The tidal thrum of “NYC” becomes something powerful when paired with Banks’ epic, broken-hearted declaration:

“Subway she is a porno/ Pavements they are a mess/ I know you’ve supported me for a long time/ Somehow I’m not impressed…”

Banks seems to write intentionally obscure lyrics, with catchy turns of phrase, which seem almost preternaturally designed for audience sing-a-longs. Banks understands that the vaguer the lyrics the more personally applicable, en masse, the words become. On “Say Hello To The Angels” Banks makes even less sense than he did on “NYC”:

“This is a concept/ This is a bracelet/ This isn't no intervention”

The album culminates with its epic closer, “Leif Erickson,” a track combining everything early-Interpol did best: a slow burn pace, haunting atmospherics, brooding lyrics and a spiraling, guitar-heavy, outro. The organ buried at the bottom of the mix does a lovely job of evoking Bauhaus while never overwhelming Dengler’s groove, Banks’ S&M-lite lyrics or Daniel Kessler’s Bernard Sumner-meets-Johnny Marr style guitar solo.    

I could ramble on here about what we needed, collectively-speaking, from art in the aftermath of September 11th. Or I could position the post-punk revival as a response to the dominance of hip hop. Neither of those themes would be incorrect. With that said, too much ink has been spilled on both of those topics already to waste more here. Instead, I’d like to posit that what makes Turn On The Bright Lights such a magnificent record is that it runs the human emotional gamut from manic highs (“Say Hello To The Angels”) to depressed lows (“NYC”) and everything in-between (“Obstacle 2”). Because, for all of their pretentious dress, and gothic affectation, Interpol are a band who want to sincerely connect with their audience and that need for connection resulted in an album in which Banks croons, “New York cares,” over and over again… and eventually you start to believe him.

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