The Interpol File

With the release of Interpol’s fifth album El Pintor on Tuesday, now is a great time to take a look back and examine the career of the band.  Yesterday we analyzed their brilliant debut, Turn on the Bright Lights; today we’ll examine how Interpol’s career developed in the wake of the their initial success.

The common narrative behind Interpol’s career has been that they’ve been in a steady decline since their stellar debut.  It’s understandable that a band may seem incapable of reaching the same creative peaks of an artistic triumph like Turn on the Bright Lights, and in our culture it seems that we are all too ready to tear down what others have built up.  However, while I will admit that album-to-album the quality of Interpol’s output has dipped, it is not nearly as steep a drop as other critics make it out to be.  In fact, there are several moments and songs that are the equal or better of their work on TOTBL.

Given the massive expectations that would surround any followup to an accomplishment like Turn on the Bright Lights, it is amazing that Antics ended up being as great as an album as it is.  Listening to the album now, disconnected from all the circumstances of its initial release, it’s easier to appreciate the record as the perfect response to its debut.  Interpol managed to balance the nearly-impossible task of creating an album that is true to the spirit of their early work without surrounding derivative of themselves, and at the same time progressing from their previous album while maintaining a deep connection with the elements that made their songs so successful in the first place.  In other words, they didn’t make a repeat of TOTBL and they didn’t abandon their formula either.

The biggest difference between the two albums is perhaps the clarity of the songs and the production.  In terms of the latter, with TOTBL there was an air of gauziness (for lack of a better term) that surrounded the recording of the instruments and especially the vocals, which helped give the music a hazy, dreamy quality.  Antics differs in that each part is recorded with sharper precision and instead of blending in as it did on TOTBL, the parts stand in sharp relief to one another.  There is more snap to the drums, more pop to the bass, and less effects on the vocals.  The result helps alter the mood and ambiance, with Antics moving away from the gloom that so many attached to TOTBL.

Antics, on a track-by-track basis, is still one of the best album of the 2000’s.  Though it initially caught fans off guard with its surprisingly danceable beat, lead single “Slow Hands” ended up being the perfect connection between Antics and their debut.  There was the sly mention of “weights” that was a callback to their previous hit “Obstacle 1”, but musically there was also several of the hallmarks of the Interpol sound, from the funky bounce of Carlos D’s bass to Sam’s expert shifting between different drum patterns, to the interaction between Paul’s and Dan’s guitars.  And while it’s easier to hear Paul’s vocals, the specific story within the song is as hard to determine as ever, though there are several memorable lyrics spread throughout (“I submit my incentive is romance; I watch the pole-dance of the stars” was a particularly good turn of phrase).

“Evil” also was a significant triumph for the band, working as a straightforward rock song with sparer instrumentation than they’ve used before.  The lyrics were also some of Paul’s best, evoking in my mind images of Camus’s The Stranger amid a mysterious love triangle.  “Evil” also provided an example of the band’s sly humor and subtle wordplay, with lines like “you’re weightless, semi-erotic; you need someone to take you there”–with those two lines in tandem, it’s easy to determine what exactly Paul means by the latter phrase.  But perhaps my favorite track is “C’mere”, a paean to unrequited love wrapped around several catchy riffs.  Just in the verse, the music alternates between a basic driving riff, a start-stop lead guitar, and a delicate chiming second guitar; similarly, the lyrics capture different emotions wrapped around the situation, from distressed (“the trouble is, you’re in love with someone else; it should be me”), to wistful (“oh how I love you in the evening, when we are sleeping”), to the cheeky (“we try to find somebody else who has a line”).

Even beyond the singles, the album is filled with several gems, from the slow-rolling opener “Next Exit” to the pounding “Not Even Jail” to the deliberate “A Time To Be So Small”.  Really, the one misstep is the goofy “Length of Love”, but I’m willing to give it a pass since it seems like it must have been a blast to play.

Interpol jumped from indie powerhouse to a major label for Our Love To Admire, but there is little in the music that would make the shift obvious to the casual observer.  It’s not as if Interpol all of a sudden became an ultra-slick, sugar-coated pop as a result of the move.  The one noticeable aspect of the change is that it seems that OLTA was a victim of the music industry’s “loudness war”, where individual parts were compressed and brickwalled, creating problems such as unintentional distortion at certain points.  The other problem with OLTA was probably not the result of label interference, but instead an offshoot of natural band evolution–the diminished role of the bass and drums.  It was at this point that Sam’s and Carlos D’s parts became simpler and took a backseat to a more prominent role for the guitars, as well as more prominent placement of Paul’s vocals.

That said, there are several songs that would fit in perfectly in an Interpol setlist.  “The Heinrich Maneuver” is a blast of hooky, uptempo rock, and the one example where the louder production serves the song well.  The unrelenting beat of “Mammoth” hits right after, and is an excellent example of ever-escalating tension.  “Who Do You Think?” sounds the most like traditional Interpol, and its place in the second half of the album is the best spot for that trip into nostalgia.  The last two tracks, “Wrecking Ball” and “The Lighthouse” also sees the band experimenting with new compositional techniques, and while they don’t necessarily completely hit, it shows that the band is attempting to branch out creatively and have not stifled themselves by sticking to the same old formula.

In other words, Our Love To Admire is better than its reputation suggests, with several points to recommend in its favor.  And that’s even in spite of the fact that Interpol decided to cater to critics’ jokes about the band in actually titling a song “No I in Threesome”, a song which is far better than its title suggests.

Interpol’s next album, their self-titled effort, is definitely a step down.  On the one hand, it showed the band willing to experiment with different musical ideas and compositional concepts, but it never fully cohered into a pleasant listen, even for fans.  In many respects, it seemed to be the sound of a band spinning its wheels creatively; one could sense that the band was running out of ideas, and it was reflected in the music.  At least the band was still making an effort, and didn’t seem too tired of actually being in the band (unlike say, The Strokes).  And while the announcement that Carlos D had left the band occurred after the release of Interpol, it almost feels like he left in the middle of recording the album–in most of the second half, the complete lack of bass is extremely noticeable.

Again though, it was not a completely wasted effort.  The first half has songs that play to Interpol’s usual strengths (“Success”, “Summer Well”, “Barricade”) as well as others that see the band do a great job of trying something new (“Lights”, “Safe Without”).  The problem is that while it’s an admirable effort, especially when attempting to assess the album as a neutral observer, there’s something unsatisfying about the whole endeavor, and it’s obvious that the band couldn’t quite figure out what the missing piece was.

The good news is that upon my first few listens of El Pintor, it seems that for the first time we can say that Interpol has improved upon its previous work.  We’ll have a full review next week, but go ahead and check out this weekend on your own.

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