Essential Classics: Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights

With the release of Interpol’s fifth album El Pintor yesterday, now is a great time to take a look back and examine the career of the band.  Today we’ll analyze their brilliant debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, and tomorrow we’ll see how Interpol’s career developed in the wake of the success of that album.

Few albums have personally affected me as much as Interpol’s debut.  When I first listened to the record back in high school, it helped introduce me to whole new worlds of music, providing the gateway to both modern indie bands and to classic post-punk bands from the past (though it would be many years before I truly comprehended what the term “post-punk” meant).  It became one of those albums I would spin over and over again, be it as a disc pumping through my car stereo, an iTunes playlist played through dorm room speakers, or an iPod selection performed through my headphones.  Over the years, there was one particular situation that would always inspire me to listen to Turn on the Bright Lights, and that was in my frequent airplane trips from coast-to-coast as I shuttled between college/law school and back home.  It didn’t matter which was the destination; either way, the album allowed me to both confront and relax away the mixture of emotions that were a result of the trip.

So you should consider my claim that Turn on the Bright Lights is the greatest album released since the turn of the new century with this personal backstory in mind.  Simply put, I believe that this album is an example of each individual member playing his part and fulfilling his role perfectly.  Daniel Kessler’s beautiful and unique guitar style is the first thing that you notice; his use of single-note melody runs as well as a dynamic array of unusual two and three-note chords (as well as his crystalline tone) helped set Kessler’s guitarwork apart from his contemporaries, and showed how an alternative approach to the instrument can work (inspiring critics to deem his guitar lines as “angular”, a nonsensical description if-you-think-about-it that has nevertheless prevailed over the past decade in comparing guitarists influenced by Kessler, much like how “jangly” became ubiquitous with the rise of R.E.M.).  The guitar doesn’t have to be omnipresent for it to still have an impact, and it can still have a massive effect even when it’s used to deploy bits of color to a song.  Kessler is helped as well by Paul Banks’s wonderful work on second guitar, which doesn’t rely on playing mere stock chords or basic rhythms but instead provides a melodic counterpoint in weaving melodies around Kessler’s runs (often creating intriguing, rarely-heard chords) or complex rhythmic interplay that help propel the songs in new directions.  Of course, you can’t talk about the genius of early Interpol without discussing Carlos D’s mesmerizing bass, which often provided key melodies to the songs and gave musicians everywhere a lesson in how to provide rhythmic support without relying on basic and repetitive patterns.  But the real hero may be Sam Fogarino’s drums, and it may take several listens to realize the subtle tricky patterns that he employs without coming off like a showoff that are nevertheless integral to keeping the songs fresh, as well as his ability to provide just the right accents to punctuate all the key moments of the album.

In addition to their fantastic individual musicianship, there are two things that the band does very well that are revealed after multiple listens.  The first is that Interpol does a brilliant job of subtly tweaking repeated phrases, both musical and lyrical, a technique that often provides the effect of casting both in a new light.  It helps keep the listener on his or her toes by challenging expectations, and also provides an incentive to engage in repeated listens, so as to uncover new musical  “tricks”.  Interpol are also compositional experts, rarely relying on a basic verse-chorus-bridge formula; not only do they employ the tweaks mentioned before, but they often create dynamic bridges that lead to amazing outros, taking the song in unexpected and rewarding directions.

Before going any further, let’s just address the Joy Division comparisons for a second.  The comparison between the two bands is valid, but to argue that Interpol is merely aping or ripping off Joy Division can only be the result of a superficial listening of the two.  There are similarities, namely the prominence of the bass and the way that it often provides melodies (especially in the upper-register), the way that the guitar is often used to provide color and as a support instead of the point of emphasis, and the disaffected baritone vocals shared by Ian Curtis and Paul Banks.  However, saying that the two are the same fails to take into account that Joy Division’s rhythmic approach was more straight-ahead and based on motorik styles (with Peter Hook’s bass in “Dead Souls” being a notable exception), while Interpol used “funkier” rhythms and switched styles more easily.  As for the vocal comparisons, this fails to take into account how Paul would often explore the outer limits of his range, or attempt to convey various emotions more often than the flat, affectless style that was the trademark of Ian Curtis.  The two bands are also unfairly tagged as “depressing” music, though this is due to some extent to the way that they present themselves.  I think it’s fairer to say that both are serious about their craft, which comes out in their songs, and deliberate in their intentions; even if the themes may edge into darker territory, that is not the same thing as saying they’re both depressing.  Interpol can often tread in the realm of the melancholic and gloomy, but after a few listens it’s easier to see both the hope and the humor in their lyrics and music.  It’s not “mope-rock” to say the least.  However, if you’re a reviewer still stuck on comparing the two bands, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats once provided a helpful list of other things to which you can compare Interpol.

With these general points in mind, I’d like to provide some personal insights on a track-by-track basis.  Hopefully they help inspire you to listen to the album and discover insights of your own.

The album begins with the delicate ballad “Untitled”, starting with a gorgeous, gauzy guitar playing a delicately descending figure.  After repeating this pattern four times with a gradual crescendo, the drums kick in with a memorable cymbal pickup, followed by Carlos D’s powerful bass.  This actually provides the dominant melody of the song, giving a prelude to Paul Banks’s vocal line.  While the song essentially amounts to one line, with each repetition Banks adds a couple of words to the phrase that subtly changes the tenor of the lines, it never feels incomplete (as the title may suggest).  After a gorgeous buildup featuring some guitar flourishes, the song ends with each instrument gradually dropping out.  But the part that I always captivates me is the bass, which switches from the ambling, rolling figure to a deliberate and decisive conclusion.  The effect of the quarter note bum-bum-buuuuuuum line is both ominous and chilling, especially as the third note lingers and you can hear the overtones rattling around your speakers.

“Obstacle 1” is the song that first made me fall in love with TOTBL, and it was unlike anything else I had heard before.  Once again, the bass takes center stage in this song, as Carlos plays one of the most innovative bass parts ever recorded.  He switches between delicate figures played on the upper register to switching between alternate rhythmic figures in the verse, to adding certain flourishes with his glissandos that slide up the neck before stopping without warning.  Kessler’s guitar sounds like a distant alarm, echoing Television’s “Marquee Moon”, before interacting in a subtle interplay with Banks’s rhythm guitar.  And then everything slides into place for that driving chorus, featuring the memorable line “as you go stabbing yourself in the neck.”  The violence of the line is never really explain, but it somehow still makes sense.  It should be noted that Paul makes a subtle switch between the two choruses, singing “It’s different now that I’m poor and aging, I’ll never see this face again” the first time, and replacing “face” with “place” the second time.  In the context of the song, which is seemingly about the dissolution of a relationship, this switch shifts the context from the personal interaction between the partners to the setting.

This all sets up the brilliant bridge, featuring some of Sam’s most furious drumming as he shuffles around the entirety of his drumkit, providing the perfect foundation as Banks struggles with the reasons that the relationship has ended.  Many critics like to make fun of the line “her stories are boring and stuff”, but this is merely an example how in many songs the narrator in many Interpol songs are either unreliable are unsympathetic; this line is an example of the narrator grasping at straws to end things, which is made clear with the very next line that “she’s always calling my bluff.”  The mood then immediately shifts to one of mourning, as he laments the “weights” that she put in his heart, which is contradicted by the consistently ascending guitar part.

“NYC” is a devastatingly gorgeous ballad filled with memorable imagery; the line “the subway is a porno, the pavements they are a mess” is one of the most memorable of the decade, and really captures the grime in the city in more ways than one (it even takes on a whole new meaning when you think of the implication of the idea that the second phrase is a direct result of the first).  For me, though, the opening lines are what stick with me: “I had seven faces, thought I knew which one to wear; I’m sick of spending these lonely nights training myself not to care.”  It is the single most accurate depiction of depression I’ve ever heard, right down to the selection of “seven faces”, since each day of the week means a different role to play according to social norms.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom, echoing a mistake that many detractors make when describing the band.  Because the band takes that pain and decides to use that to propel themselves–first encouraged by the backing vocals “gotta be some more change in my life”, this builds into a personal call for action as Paul sings “it’s up to me now, turn on the bright lights” as Dan’s guitar elevates to the heavens with a majestic termolo-picked solo guitar line.  But perhaps the song’s highest moment is when Sam’s drums emphasizes each quarter note before the last chorus of “New York cares”, as if you can reach through and feel the band sense each of those words.

The track “PDA” is how many people first heard the band, and in many ways this makes it easy to understand why all the music critics insisted on comparing the band to Joy Division in every single review.  It’s one of the most straight-forward songs on the album, with a momentum built on its forward-leaning eighth-note drive, and is marked by Paul’s nearly affect-less singing, which makes those connections that critics drew to Ian Curtis pretty clear.  One thing I enjoy hearing is Sam switching drum patterns from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal during each line in the verse, giving some lines extra clarity while others get a bit of cloudiness added to the mix.  This song has some of Interpol’s most oblique lyrics (I never figured out what “sleep tight, grim ride, we have two hundred couches where you can sleep tonight” meant), though I do enjoy the lines “You’re so cute when you’re frustrated/you’re so cute when you’re sedated”, which can double as both sweet and alarming, depending on the context or your perspective.  But it’s the breakdown into the outro which shows the band’s true musical genius, as one single guitar figure is countered with an alternate guitar figure, before the bass adds a third melodic line to an already complex mix.  It’s absolutely sublime, and it’s a crime that the music video omitted this section.

When people want to mock Interpol and say that they’re a bunch of sad bastards, I like to point them to the song “Say Hello to the Angels” which has some lines with real, actual humor.  Just think for a second what Paul is referring to when he says “I can’t control the part of me that swells up when you move into my airspace” (the line “1-2-3, do me” is a little less subtle).  If you think that’s an inappropriate metaphor for a serious musician to use, then you clearly have never noticed the erection joke in Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Free”.  Musically, I love the alternating moods of the song, from the frantic, driving beat that shifts into a bouncy shuffle, to the deliberate, almost-metal stomp at the end that’s augmented by those palm-muted, percussive guitar strokes.

“Hands Away” is in many ways similar to the opener “Untitled”, and is one of the clearer instances that helps support my theory that the second half acts as a mirror to the first half, with tracks 6-10 partnering up with 1-5.  It’s not a perfect theory, but it’s worth thinking about once you’re listening to this half of the album.  The song is practically a music theory exercise, with each section seemingly getting faster merely by adding a note to the rhythmic figure (going from quarter to eighth to triplets, etc.).  The high point of the song is the gorgeous use of string synths at the climax, as it becomes too difficult to keep adding to the rhythmic figure as laid out before.  It’s also worth noting how the vocals switch styles from the first half of the song to the second, from a delicate approach to a more distant and evocative wail at the end.

In my first listens of TOTBL, I had felt that “Obstacle 2” didn’t measure up to “Obstacle 1”, making the comparison in my head even though I had read that the band claimed that the two are unconnected despite the similar names.  But over time I have come to love this song even more than its counterpart, even though I recognize the unique creative brilliance of the first one.  “Obstacle 2” provides the perfect case to examine how Interpol uses those “subtle tweaks” with its various repetitions to subtly change both tone and meaning.  In the pre-chorus, Paul sings “If you can fix me up, girl, we’ll go a long way” twice, but uses a different rhythm each time; the first has a bit of a bounce, reminiscent of someone skipping down the sidewalk, while the second one is deliberately straightforward and on the beat, as if to emphasize the importance of this declaration.  This pre-chorus is also repeated twice, with Sam using a different drum fill each time; the first is simpler and emphasizing the downbeat, while the second stutters and staggers a bit.  In a song filled with various references to drinking, both direct and indirect (“I stand by all this drinking if it helps me through these days”; “friends don’t waste wine when there’s words to sell”; “toast the snow that fell”), this helps indicate that perhaps the narrator is stumbling a bit as the alcohol begins to take hold.  It also puts the final lines of “It took time, then I found you” in a whole new light, depending on how much you read into that interpretation–is it a declaration, or is it a lament?

“Stella was a diver and she was always down” almost works as a reverse of “NYC”–instead of building up, the song is slowly torn down, as seen by its extensive breakdown that concludes the song (forgive me, I’m trying all that I can to make my theory proposed in the write-up of “Hands Away” work).  This song features my least-favorite Interpol lyric, but one I rarely see mentioned in those “bad lyric” roundups that critics love to employ when they bring up Interpol; I don’t care for the repetition in the line “the building fronts are just fronts”, especially since this pattern isn’t used elsewhere in the song, and it’s not even used to fit into a rhyme.  I feel that “the building fronts are just that” would capture the same idea in a more poetic manner, as the listener could pause to realize the implication of the use of the word “front”.  Speaking of lyrics, I’m pretty sure this song is referring to a woman engaging in the art of oral sex, giving a whole new meaning to the title and what specifically is the goal of the diving.

“Roland” is where you can really see where the “punk” in post-punk comes from, and the driving rocker is a great change of pace once “Stella” slowly disintegrated into the bottom of the sea.  I love the riffs, especially the riffs reminiscent of spy movies, which I believe helps shed light on the otherwise cryptic lyrics.  With this in mind, I believe that the song can be interpreted as a friend being interviewed about the unexpected violent crimes of an acquaintance, with the non sequiturs of the snow and the beard indicative of the narrator’s delicate mental state as he/she confronts the ugly reality of the person they thought they had known.

It took me years before I warmed up to “The New”, but now I believe that it is perhaps the best song on the entire album.  It’s a multi-part epic that doesn’t feel burdened by those expectations; the six minutes fly by and though the fragile first half and the sinister second half differ greatly, one can find the connective tissue between the two parts.  The song is an excellent showcase for all the talents of Carlos, beginning with his upper-octave melody that begins the song to his restrained support in the first bridge to his stuttering and funky maneuvers that help raise the anxiety of the listener during the song’s climax.  It also includes yet another example of the “subtle tweak”, this time with the insertion of a single word that may or may not change the meaning of a line (depending on how you interpret double-negatives in music).  First, Paul sings “I can’t pretend, I need to defend some part of me from you”, but on the next time through, he says “I can’t pretend I don’t need to defend some part of me from you”; once you realize that “don’t” can alter what Paul is trying to say, you then go back and realize that depending on the punctuation and emphasis, you can change the meaning of both lines once again.  It’s a puzzle that potentially always remains unsolved.

I want to make a special note of the climax of “The New”, which shows once again highlights the strength of each member as musicians.  I mentioned Carlos and his bass earlier, who makes excellent use of both the high and low end of his instrument (the latter of which whose sudden entrance near the end of the song helps give a foreboding warning), but I should also point out that the interplay between the two guitars is also mesmerizing.  For the guitar solo, Daniel repeats a single note multiple times, creating a tension in the listener’s mind because he/she cannot predict what will happen next; Kessler then responds by actually detuning the string, relieving the tension by physically releasing tension in the string.  Somehow the unconventional maneuver of detuning a guitar mid-song sounds more comforting to the ear, if only for a moment, than playing a normal note.  After this section, Daniel and Paul play competing lines that both dance around the tonal center, spawning a different kind of tension by devising these unconventional two-note chords.  This effort is all underscored by Sam’s efficient drumming, which both effortlessly shuffles between different patterns and provides excellent fills, most notably the big snare-roll fill for the final climax and the subtle crescendo emphasized hits that end the song.

The album concludes with the sublime “Leif Erikson”, an elegant midtempo number that carefully outlines the delicate relationship between opposing partners and worldviews.  The guitar chords are often unconventional, using slight deviations from normal patterns to create feelings of unease, but the band carefully resolves the progression each time they’re played.  The bridge features perhaps my favorite lyric of the album, which eloquently describes how clumsy the initial communications of love can be: “it’s like learning a new language…helps me catch up on my mime” is an excellent simile, evoking the memory in many people the difficulties of expressing one’s self in a foreign language and the various work-arounds we attempt in order to carry across our message.  Once again, synths help provide some nice color, and in combination with the final little guitar solo helps the song end on a hopeful note.

That may have seen like a rather intensive analysis of the album, but it’s only a fraction of the total number of ideas that Turn on the Bright Lights has spurred in me.  It’s that amazing of an album, and it’s the reason why I will forever be a fan of Interpol.


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