Rarely has time’s passage been so unkind to an artist’s reputation. Depending on your philosophy about how art is perceived in its context, Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights is either a magnificently realized musical vision or lightning in a bottle, a work whose promise is tainted by the band’s slippery descent into mediocrity in the decade that followed. As you may have surmised, I subscribe to the former opinion. Firstly, because my emotional compass demands it; at one point, it felt as if my life depended on this record, and that is not a trivial thing. But also because a decade removed from the buzz and backlash, Turn on the Bright Lights still exudes a certain gravity, an inexorable pull that confirms the greatness so many suspected. It remains one of the few flawless albums of the post-millennium era, a work whose immediacy, enduring completeness, and the band’s inability to top it make it feel almost like a devil’s bargain — something to be relished but never surpassed.
When Bright Lights arrived in 2002, it was a musical statement so fully formed that you had to wonder if its stylistic impact hadn’t been engineered all along. Detractors went to great lengths to point out the New York City foursome’s flaws — a post-punk pedigree that seemed almost too good to be true, their on-stage penchant for high society fashion, and a playing style that seemed so focused on crafting mood and atmosphere that it eschewed technique and spontaneity. Basically, form over function. But you couldn’t deny the sheer gravity of this record. This was a serious work, and not in a goth sort of way (although there was elements of that), but in its sense of purpose and the idea that the weight of all your life’s decisions might be incumbent upon these songs.
The album begins the only way it truly could have — with the mournful, floating guitar notes of “Untitled.” As guitarist Daniel Kessler recalls, it was a song specifically constructed as “theme music to announce the band,” a purpose it served on both Bright Lights and almost every tour date supporting it. In just four minutes, “Untitled” encapsulated Interpol’s entire aesthetic — the gradual introduction of one instrument after another revolving around a single melody, such that each part could clearly be distinguished, but when they convalesced as whole, a transformation occurred. It’s a technique the band followed over and over again — on “Obstacle 1,” “PDA,” “Hands Away” and “Leif Erikson” — building a song before your very ears then letting it take you to another place.
It also pointed to the distinct role that each musician played in Interpol — Kessler, as its chief songwriter and creative musical force, Paul Banks, the second guitarist whose distinctive Ian Curtis-like baritone became just as much a band trademark as his cryptic lyrics, Carlos Dengler (a.k.a. Carlos D.) the tall, weirdly charismatic would-be-rock-star whose new wave haircut, gun holster-touting outfits, and imposing stage presence both called attention to and were backed up by his astonishingly limber bass lines, and Sam Fogarino, the elder statesman whose arrival as drummer in 2001 revved the band into a new gear of performance. Carlos D. effused that it was like playing with John Bonham with urban swagger: “It was the best of both worlds: I could be in the pure universe of floating melodies and melancholy textures, but underneath I got my…fix, where I could land my bass notes. It was fucking magic.”
With tracks that included “Obstacle 1,” “NYC”, “PDA” and “Say Hello To Angels,” Bright Lights might house the best Side One of the aughts (yes, that includes Arcade Fire’s Funeral). “PDA”, whose final two minutes are among the most transcendent in Interpol’s catalog, almost didn’t made the cut; the song had been kicking around for years, and Banks had reportedly grown tired of it. Luckily, producer Peter Katis saved “PDA” from being scratched, recognizing it would be their hit single. Indeed, nearly all the songs on the first side garnered radio airplay even though they were completely cut from the fabric of the Interpol universe — macabre, metrosexual, and menacingly cool. Carlos D. and Fogarino proved an unstoppable rhythm section, Kessler poured out arpeggiated lines of gorgeous guitar melody, and Banks sang-spoke about butchers, catatonic sex toys, and girls who looked “cute when sedated.”
On stage, the band wore ties and fitted suits that stood in direct contrast to the trashy chic style made popular the year prior by other New York bands like the Strokes. Although some took it for artifice, the look matched the band’s knack for visual performance and art school sensibilities. As Banks explained, the choice in clothing seemed only natural: “It felt appropriate…to dress up to perform this music….(since) it was the only job in my life I took seriously.” Listening to the interview, its striking how cautiously he speaks — cognizant that, in some ways, Interpol’s very legacy hinges upon his words. You can hardly blame him. Banks became an early lightning rod for attacks on Interpol’s legitimacy — critics labelled his vocal similarities to Ian Curtis a blatant ripoff and challenged the abstract nature of Banks’ lyrics, which teetered between mysterious, image-centric word play and urban beat poetry nonsense.
How the syllables sounded together was often more important than the content themselves. “You’ll go stabbing/ Yourself in/ The neck!” didn’t make literal sense but when Banks gasped it out in “Obstacle 1,” it became an amazingly effective metaphor for the mindset of a damaged relationship. And it sticks on your head, too. On a track like “NYC,” Banks could be obtuse (“The subway she is a porno/ The pavements they are a mess”) and disarmingly straightforward (“I know you’ve supported me a long time/ Somehow I’m not impressed/ But New York cares.”) Over a melancholy, almost spiritual melody, it became an astonishingly moving tribute to the band’s home city and its collective post-9/11 trauma.
Although all of Bright Light’s songs were written before the twin towers fell, the definitive versions were recorded immediately afterwards and achieved an unexpected poignancy as a result. As Carlos D. said, even though the connection between the two was unintentional, “(it felt like) we were holding the cards to a certain message that was about to become relevant. It’s like the universe was taking care of us, even in the form of a horrific event.” Still to this day, Bright Lights is the sound of that place in that era — a dark, multifaceted jewel of conflicted emotions, of being ecstatic, wounded, despondent, forgiving, full of yearning, bent yet still unbroken. When Banks intoned “There’s got to be some more change in my life” at the climax of “NYC” then revealed “It’s up to me now,” you could surmise what the lyric meant for him, but more important was what it meant for each of us, in our own lives.
Like other epochal albums, a certain mythology surrounds Bright Lights — from fans’ assertion that “Roland” was written about Jack the Ripper to the admission that Banks mumbled the intro to “Stella Was A Diver And She’s Always Down” because he had a mouth full of ice. This 10th anniversary remastered edition contains another CD of odds and ends (the superbly brooding “Specialist”, “Song Seven,” “Precipitate”, etc.) that most diehard Interpol fans downloaded from Napster long ago, but it’s a pleasure to have them collected all in one place. “Gavilan (Cubed)”, the only previously unreleased track, is a mostly forgettable dirge. The real discovery is actually the early demos, not for what they include but what they are missing — they reveal how crucial both the addition of Fogarino’s drumming and Katis’ spacious, reverb-laden production was to Bright Lights’ seminal sound. Without both, the songs lack some of their propulsion and richness, although I have to admit, the stripped-down, demo version of “Roland” might actually be better, it’s wiry nakedness complementing the song’s sinister subject matter.
It’s ironic that if Interpol had made only Turn on the Bright Lights, critics might judge them more kindly. (Some of Interpol’s greatest influences —- Joy Division, the Smiths, and Television — burned out before fading away, and history favors them accordingly) Since sophomore album Antics was a near-mimeograph of Bright Lights, it’s pretty damn good (“Evil” and “Not Even Jail” are classics), but after that, the band went downhill awfully fast. I should have known when I saw the lions eating the antelope on the awful cover of 2007’s Our Love to Admire that Interpol was the antelope. And I think the band knew it, too; Carlos D sure did. Growing increasingly discontent, he quit Interpol before their self-titled fourth album even hit stores, refusing to tour behind what he considered an abominable retread of an exhausted aesthetic.
Nonetheless, Turn On the Bright Light’s excellence remains unquestionable — its flawless construction and lasting influence ample evidence that Interpol was far more than a one trick pony. The album represents a cultural zeitgeist of sorts — an artistic rendering of the cumulative psyche of the world’s greatest city brought brutally to its knees, yet rising to stand once again. The fact that the association was unplanned doesn’t make Bright Lights’ emotional honesty any less resonant — in fact, it almost feels supernatural. When a band gets it just right the first time (rather than work their way up to greatness), there are bound to be skeptics, but sometimes, that is precisely what happens. Lightning does strike. And when it does, its brilliance should be acknowledged and admired. Irrespective of how history judges Interpol, Turn On The Bright Lights can be personally life-altering, as much today as it was ten years ago. With regard to music, I can think of no greater gift.
Interpol – “Untitled” – mp3
Your description of Interpol’s signature song construct is perfect: ” the gradual introduction of one instrument after another revolving around a single melody, such that each part could clearly be distinguished, but when they convalesced as whole, a transformation occurred”. I’ve always been amazed when I go back and listen to TOTBL how a band could layer meticulously precise, almost mathematical, melodies on top of one another and have the result sound so inspiringly transcendent. The end of PDA is the ideal example. Like organic matter, that finale is so much more than the sum of its parts. Can’t wait to go back and give it another listen…
I always love reading what you have to say…even when the music doesn’t appeal to me. And sometimes it does.
Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Whenever I listen to an album from a band I don’t know, I hope for the something like the experience of hearing this for the first time. All of its tracks are on the “most likely to be turned up loud” list, and bound to give chills and/or dial up the body temp a few degrees.