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Sunday, January 12, 2020

Interpol: Turn On The Bright Lights


1) Untitled; 2) Obstacle 1; 3) NYC; 4) PDA; 5) Say Hello To The Angels; 6) Hands Away; 7) Obstacle 2; 8) Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down; 9) Roland; 10) The New; 11) Leif Erikson.

General verdict: If this is indeed one of the best indie rock albums of the 2000s, this explains the nichization of rock music more transparently than any other case study.

In the early and still somewhat optimistic years of the 21st century, God made a plan to save rock music — again — because rock music was apparently in need of saving — again. The plan was quick, rough, and impulsive, as should befit any plan dealing with rock music, and involved the usual three steps. Step 1: The Strokes lead an initial Panzer attack and take the world by surprise with their rejuvenated brand of garage punk, just like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols did 25 years before. Step 2: Interpol arrive with heavy infantry reinforcements and assuage the dazzled world with their reintellectualized brand of post-punk, just like Joy Division and the Cure did 25 years before. Step 3: Fuck knows what, itʼs all supposed to auto-pilot itself to Heaven.

Reading back on all sorts of stuff that has been written about the first albums by these bands and the general history of indie-rock in the first five years of the 21st century, you could almost make yourself believe that Godʼs plan totally succeeded. Many retro-reviews of Turn On The Bright Lights, in particular, still praise the record as a blissful poetic and musical revelation, almost singlehandedly responsible for the indie-rock revival of the 2000s — in the wake of Interpolʼs success came The National, Deerhunter, Arcade Fire, and tons of lesser artists to serve as trendy contemporary deities for young millennial hipsters with dark and sensitive hearts (the ones with bright and hedonistic hearts would rather have their choice of Strokes, Hives, and Vines). The album has definitely become part of the canon for rockʼs twilight years (I think we could safely reserve that term for the 2000s, since «rock music» as such in the 2010s has pretty much become relegated to museum exhibits and revival carnivals), and will most likely continue to be respected as long as millennials still have a voice in forming consensus.

Whether the record is really all that valuable if you do place it in the overall context of musical history rather than personal nostalgia is, however, quite a different matter. Over the course of quite a few listens — many more than the minimum requirement of three that I usually demand from myself to write about anything — there was never even one second during which I would find my senses in ecstasy, and quite a few seconds (and minutes) during which I would find myself in a state of terminal boredom. To my ears, this era of Interpol is characterized, above and beyond everything else, by barely-bearably lazy songwriting. The typical formula for an Interpol song is as follows: «find one chord — play it in staccato mid-tempo mode — stick to it for about three or four minutes — put some monotonous and emotionally drained vocals on top of it — rinse and repeat ten or eleven times». Sounds familiar?

To be fair, this is a formula that occasionally could work, and itʼs not as if the abovementioned Joy Division or Cure would always rise above it themselves. The problem is, I am still at a total loss when trying to understand what it is that Paul Banks and his not-so-merry band of young New Yorkers are actually adding to it. Subtracting, sure; adding, not so sure. Everything about this set of songs screams «competence»; not a single thing screams «genius». Heck, not even a single thing screams «so well adapted to the values of the 2000s!», though maybe that last one is actually a good thing, because at least the record still sounds relatively timeless 18 years later (unlike, say, Franz Ferdinand).

As an example, let us focus (as hard as it is) on ʽPDAʼ, the first single from the album. Like most other songs here, it is a mid-tempo rocker with all the musical complexity of a Ramones song but none of the Ramonesʼ humor and self-irony. Lyrically, it establishes its grim seriousness pretty much immediately with the opening line "yours is the only version of my desertion that I could ever subscribe to" (whatever that means) and confirms it with the chorus of "we have two hundred couches where you can sleep tight, grim rite" (I wonder why they didnʼt hire David Lynch to make the video for the song). But musically, the only thing that goes on is an incessant monotonous strum — which does gain a little intensity as they head into the coda, but certainly not enough to make me feel that they are doing anything even remotely interesting with those guitars. And what sort of atmosphere is the song trying to convey? Darkness? Desperation? Cold resignation? The vocals are so utterly bland and the guitar lines are so completely generic that the song just passes by without tickling a single nerve in my body.

Another example — second single, ʽObstacle 1ʼ. Here you could make an interesting comparison, because the second of the songʼs two interlocking riffs, the repetitive two-chord strum, is a clear (even if subconscious) nod to Televisionʼs ʽMarquee Moonʼ, making it clear who these guysʼ principal role models are; and indeed, both songs strive to create a similar atmosphere, conveying a sense of emotional frustration in some restricted environment. But ʽMarquee Moonʼ actually uses that two-chord strum (opening the song) as a foundation, a base pulse around which the second, relatively complicated, swirling second riff winds around — not to mention the snapping, venomous vocals which tell you not to fuck around with the hero. In ʽObstacle 1ʼ, the two-chord strum arrives later and is actually the compositionʼs «lead» element; eventually, they start playing around with both riffs and trying to develop them in different directions, but the opening minute is disappointingly wasted, and the weak vocals offer little assistance — itʼs like somebody is desperately trying to get angry about something, but since heʼs actually got nothing serious to get angry about, the effort is not convincing.

What about something faster? ʽSay Hello To The Angelsʼ, for instance, whose main riff was actually shamelessly stolen by Arcade Fire for the coda to ʽWake Upʼ? (In all honesty, though, that is such an obvious riff, it must have been used in at least a couple dozen pop-rock songs before, I just canʼt unscramble them in my head right now). Formally, itʼs energetic, but where are the hooks? Are they supposed to be lodged somewhere within the "you move into my air space" chorus? But it is merely a case of raising the volume a little, there is nothing non-trivial or surprising, no real build-up, no classy melodic resolutions, just nothing: a perfect example of how to do a fast rock song with zero new ideas.

You can easily extrapolate all these comments on most of the rest of these songs. Like so many revered (or not revered) albums from its era, what Turn On The Bright Lights really does is cut out a small chunk of the legacy of one or two established acts of the past and then amplify that chunk to the extent that, if we want to really enjoy it, we have to force ourselves to distinguish between the slightest and subtlest of nuances. For all the comparisons to Ian Curtis, and for all the thematic and atmospheric homogeneity of Joy Division songs, I do not remember Joy Division starting every second song of theirs with the same repetitive «ching ching ching ching ching ching ching ching» pattern — their guitar lines could borrow from the arsenals of just about anybody from The Doors to Black Sabbath, and whatʼs even more important, they never sounded like a bunch of well-meaning school kids afraid to seriously crank it up because the headmaster could come along at any moment and throw them out of the rehearsal hall. Post-punk really does not work all that well on tranquilizers, and it honestly sounds as if these guys were popping them down by the dozen during recording sessions.

All in all, though, Turn On The Bright Lights is a pretty important record because it gives a very clear explanation — well, one of many possible and non-mutually excluding explanations — to why the 2000s finally spelt out the death of rock music as a major captivating form of artistic expression. Over several previous decades, there was always this feel that rock music can be revived by stripping itself from its accumulated excesses and going back to its roots. It worked in the late 1970s, it worked well enough in the early 1990s — but this record demonstrates why it didnʼt really work in the early 2000s, even if, for a while, some people thought (or at least pains­takingly tried to convince themselves) that it did. The thing is, if you do not really put out, 100%, there is no sense in putting out at all. Turn On The Bright Lights — and, alas, a lot of second-hand indie rock that it inspired — is a derivative, unimaginative, limp, hookless mess with some pretense to intellectualism (mainly due to Paul Banksʼ intentionally enigmatic but, frankly, not too engaging lyrics) that simply has no reason to exist unless we previously burn down every little thing that our forefathers have left for us in the New Wave era.

Of course, Turn On The Bright Lights is not even Interpolʼs best record (though it will be pretty hard to convince people otherwise, given its well-canonized status); of course, 2000s indie rock cannot be reduced to its influence and imitations; and it goes without saying that Interpol were hardly the inventors of this bland, boring, faux-intellectualized rock sound, what with second-rate post-punk bands being there on the scene from the day that post-punk was born. They simply happened to be one of the first second-rate rock bands of the 21st century to be promoted as first-rate — helping establish a new, lowered-expectation standard for the genre that looks so pathetic in the overall historical context. Alas, the fact that they seemingly had no competition for that standard in 2002 — and, come to think of it, they still donʼt have much of a competition as late as 2020 — sort of speaks for itself. 


  1. Is this your most vicious review as of yet?

    1. Not really. Bright Eyes and Bon Iver had it worse, I believe.

  2. Hey George,
    Long-time lurker here, figured I'd comment something on this review since Turn On the Bright Lights was a formative album for me.

    Because I pretty much came of age in the early 2000s, I remember that music era much more fondly than you. Although I too live in a post-communist country (Romania in my case), by the time I turned 14 years old when this album came out, I already had a basic dial-up Internet connection and could painstakingly use it to try and download new music. My parents were the ones that had listened to a lot of classic rock (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the like) - I’d assume both as a fuck-you to the system and because it was their first introduction to rock music.

    Now, as a pre-teen my first instinct was to rebel against all that stuff, so indie rock was a great way for me to get some of those good old-fashioned rock’n’roll kicks without having to pay respect to those fabled dinosaurs. In this context, Turn On the Bright Lights sounded pretty damn good. I remember loving PDA in particular, especially for the album version’s extended coda, which to me is still a great example of an almost mathematical perfection in rock music (on the opposite side of the spectrum, Pavement’s Fame Throwa represented the beauty of rock in its most shambolic form). The way each instrument is patiently introduced, how they interact with one another, the sheer ecstatic abandon of it all was intoxicating to me at the time and still is. In fact, it’s the first song I remember voluntarily dancing to as a conscious semi-adult.

    I also loved Leif Erikson (even though I had a blown-out speaker at the time and couldn’t quite hear the guitar solo at the end, I assumed the actual song didn’t have one until a few years down the line) and had a fondness for NYC, Untitled and Obstacle 1. I agree that the album loses a bit of steam down the stretch, and personally found the lyrics to be borderline risible even back then. To me the whole ethos of Interpol is about matching the atmospheric post-punk of Joy Divison and the like with a kind of moody, lovesick and quite horny take on rock’n’roll. I get why some people might not jell with that (Robert Christgau’s review about them wearing depression like a designer suit is quite potent in this regard), personally I wasn’t too crazy about it either. But at least on Turn on the Bright Lights Paul Banks still drops occasional hints of romanticism (‘her rabid glow is like Braille to the night’), which gives the whole thing a kind of underdog charm. By Antics and Our Love to Admire he’s already a cocksure asshole, so that personally makes the latter albums much less appealing to me.

    Anyway, I’d be remiss not to mention that in the intervening years between Turn on the Bright Lights and now I’ve grown much fonder of classic rock in general. Does that mean I think the best stuff from Broken Social Scene and Wolf Parade, to name just two personal indie favorites, can compare with the likes of Exile on Main Street (an absolute masterpiece that I probably wouldn’t have appreciated 10 years ago)? I suspect not, but honestly I have no idea, and quite frankly in times such as these when rock music in itself is by and large a dead institution, I think it’s a moot point. Everybody grows up differently, and to me it’s a blessing that I at least got to experience a bit of the rock’n’roll era, even if it happened in its more muted latter stages. I still remember these records fondly even if I don’t listen to them all that much anymore. God only knows how much it would’ve sucked to grow up in the era of Imagine Dragons and Twenty One Pilots.

    1. Thanks a lot for the lengthy explanation. Like I said, my anger in most such cases is not so much against the artist as it is against the inadequate response to the artist (one of the reviews at the time went "it's almost as if Ian Curtis never hanged himself", which is just a tad short of sacrilegious). I do think though that even today, with total availability, one has a good chance of growing up with something other than Imagine Dragons; decent contemporary music exists and will always exist.
      It's a bit of a curse that with all these old records surviving, it is impossible to appreciate new stuff "on its own", but it's also a reality. I just can't get myself to appreciate the Interpol sound when, even in all of its disciplinary perfection, it cannot match the atmospherically similar heights of Television or The Cure.

    2. I think that's because rock music has a special relationship with the past. Critics tend to compare modern artists with their forbearers and accuse them whenever they fall short of previously established standards. This also happens in jazz and classical music, but is much less common in pop. That's why you rarely hear people complaining that Ariana Grande is basically an inferior version of Mariah Carey or that Billie Eilish is an unholy mixture between Pink and Avril Lavigne (I don't necessarily agree with these viewpoints, but they could be made). Rock music, on the other hand, is almost always judged in view of its legendary past. Granted, I don't think that taking everything 'as is', sans context or history, is faultless either. Without any standards in place, you're liable to get inferior stuff all the time. But it does tend to turn rock music, like jazz and classical before it, into 'museum genres' after a while.

    3. > to get some of those good old-fashioned rock’n’roll kicks without having to pay respect to those fabled dinosaurs.

      Well, that's a very understandable point! What still bugs me about Interpol's success is that just a mere 5 years ago the world had rock music's troubled darlings Mansun alive and kicking, a band too imaginative to be framed as someone's copycat, a band with a taste of its' own and rather successful chart-wise, too, so it was possible to appreciate them without being an indie savvy person.

      How did the quality drop this dramatically I've still yet to understand. I suspect that the answer is because Mansun came from the world of big label deals, while Interpol approached from Matador's indie net, which probably divides the audiences and you can't expect one of them easily appreciate or even know about the values of another's.

      Also Interpol are American and had access to a wider and more self-oriented market so it's easy to see how their audience hadn't have a taste of more inspired (as well as inspiring) music in a while. UK had Radiohead, Beta Band, Blur, Mansun and Oasis. Can't remember if US had anything to offer of the same caliber. Probably The Dandy Warhols was as far alternative as you could get in rock music.

      Still not a bullet proof explanation for me.

    4. To be fair I also loved my fair share of Britpop as well. Not Mansun specifically, but Oasis/The Verve/Cornershop if they count were all a pretty big deal for me at certain points in my life.

      The problem was that most of those points happened when I was in middle school, just before the Internet blew up. So I discovered many of those bands on TV (VH1 was great for this in particular). I'd literally stay in front of the screen all day long hoping they'd show Bittersweet Symphony or Don't Look Back in Anger.

      By the early 2000s, however, most of these bands had broken up or were a far cry from their previous highs, so I searched for newer stuff. Personally the whole indie thing peaked for me with the likes of Los Campesinos!, TV on the Radio and Destroyer, bands/artists which will likely suffer a similar fate to Mansun - in that they'll be mostly forgotten in a few short years despite what I consider to be continued excellence. In that respect, being a rock fan in this day and age really doesn't do you any favors.

    5. That's your own perspective, to which I can relate in some way, however the likes of you and others living in non-English speaking countries (or markets if we're talking about business here) are only vaguely responsible for Interpol's success. I'd be very interested in American take on this story from people who had much easier access to rock music in its' varied shapes and didn't have to sit through TV programmes just to catch their favorite song.

    6. Well, as someone who's been living on the far side of the pond for almost 4 decades now, I must say that I didn't like it then and still don't like it now, although my dislike does not rise to the level of anger and hatred.

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  4. Hi George! Longtime fan, first time commenter here. Like Alex, I'm from Romania and a big Interpol fan, but a bit older and came around to the band in a very different way.

    As a bit of background, my parents weren't into music but some of my childhood friends introduced me to the classic rock canon. So by the mid 2000s I had already digested much of that and was looking for something contemporary and fresh but with bitchin guitars.

    I became aware of indie rock through friends and online reviews, got excited at its being hailed as rock's second/third/fourth/whatever coming and got downloading. What followed was, for a year or two, utter disappointment.

    In particular I remember listening to Interpol and having very much the same reaction as you. "This is like Joy Division but less interesting". "What the fuck is that poser singing about? Pseudo intellectual douche." and "Oh god the guitars on this song are EXACTLY like on that other song and on every other song". I kept comparing this music to the richness in ideas and endless variation in classic rock or even new wave music and thought it was bullshit.

    Some time later, for whatever reason, I suddenly GOT it. Perhaps my ear got used to it because of its semi-constant presence around me at the time I dont know.

    Musically, the point with much of Interpol (at least for the first 4 albums, with original bass player Carlos D) isnt the guitars. It's the DRUMS and BASS.

    All the guitars do is create a uniform canvas with those straight 8th note rhythms. That's it. On that canvas, the syncopated, funky as hell but also dark and heavy rhythm section paints like a cubist on crack. Much of the time, Interpol to me feel like a very weird, dark dance band.

    This dynamic is a very interesting reversal of rock music's traditional relationship between guitars and bass&drums. Usually, guitars are the figure and the rhythm section is the background. Interpol are the first band I've heard to deliberately, systematically reverse this.

    It's also very easy to miss this dynamic because we're so used to listening to what the guitars are doing and looking for that cool riff, for which the bass and drums play an understated supporting role. I took the fact that you didn't mention the rhythm section once in your review as a sign that, like me, you didn't catch this on your initial contact with the band (please correct me if im wrong).

    Listen to Obstacle 1 but with this mindset of looking at what the bass and drums are doing, not the guitars, and tell me what you think. For me, the Marquee Moon reference disappears as the guitars fade into the background and something completely different and weird comes to the surface along with the punchy, dance-y syncopation.

    1. I was going to leave something like this comment, but this fella says it better than I was gonna say it. The things the rhythm section do on this record go well and beyond what Interpol's contemporaries were even dreaming about in 2002... (I'd argue they go well beyond what even the Cure and Joy Division were attempting, in their funkiest moments) And I'm not sure George mentions them once! Carlos D and Sam Fogarino are the dark, hooky, agile, fascinating secret to this record's success (and I think for all of its flaws-- George is totally right about Paul Banks' pretty uninteresting contributions, lyrically and vocally-- this record is definitely a success).

  5. Here's an open question: did ANY good music come out in 2002? I tried to make a list of my favorite albums by year a little while ago and found I had plenty of contenders for 2001 and 2003, but that 2002 was a dead zone. And yet I don't know; when I check RYM I see comments like

    "...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead [...] along with Wilco, Interpol, Sigur Rós, Boards of Canada, Bright Eyes, and others, made 2002 one of the most exceptional years of music not only in the current century, but almost certainly in living memory."

    And wonder what the hell I'm missing. Looking at George's "best albums of 2002" list I see Springsteen's "The Rising" and Beck's "Sea Change" - maybe 9/11 really threw the art world off its axis? Certainly this album works as a kind of monument to post-9/11 paralysis ("NYC" in particular is difficult to interpret any other way if you axe me). Not sure it holds up 18 years later, though.

  6. I’d probably give it yellow, not green. The pale yellow. Never cared too much for this album, and it was only when a friend talked me into seeing them in Munich a couple of years back that Interpol started to make a little more sense to me. They played the album in its entirety and some of the melodies came through. At the very least, I stopped treating the whole thing as a Joy Division ripoff.
    You speak of ecstasy... Well, there is a brief section in “Say Hello To The Angels” (after 1:20) that I absolutely love, and I can’t figure out why they never bothered to repeat that throughout the song... Nothing else on the album even comes close to that level of energy and sheer excitement. I would also mention “NYC” as a lovely ballad and maybe a few other things - but overall, yeah, no oomph.

  7. "Turn On The Bright Lights is a pretty important record"
    So now it's official - I'm an old geezer. I literally never had heard of the band, let alone the album. Apparently I haven't missed anything.
    Still your critics have a point. Shouldn't you make an effort to find yourself some good stuff recorded after 2000 CE and review it? I already suggested Alestorm's debut and mentioned female bubblegum math rock outfit Tricot a while ago (still my favourites). This time I nominate the ZZZs, also from Japan. Example:

  8. "many more than the minimum requirement of three that I usually demand from myself to write about anything"

    Heh. I remember the times when it was _four_ mandatory listens, actually ;)

  9. "(unlike, say, Franz Ferdinand)"

    Do FF sound dated to you? That's an interesting point. AFAIK, they were intentionally anachronistic, aping a New Wave sound from the very beginning.

  10. This mostly leaves the questiosn what George think the best Interpol record is. Antics? I used to agree but I think this one has surpassed it over time for me. I can relate to most of George's assessments, but for me it doesn't take away from the listening experience and good memories of my time as a student related to it. For many people music is more about the impact on their lifes and the associated emotions than the actual notes played.

  11. Dear George
    As you are Russian and belong to reviewing Circles so please review Russian Circles.

  12. Listening to this makes me want to listen to Nowa Aleksandria by Siekiera, instead.

  13. It seems to me that the one arena the 2000s did excel in that even the following decade couldn't match was concise and numerous "tributes" in this vein, for virtually every niche and style. Even if the artists didn't have much new to say, or even quality control beyond one or two albums, there were so many credible and accessible imitators of the past with (I'd argue) just enough of their own personality and style to be a worthy update. Sure it didn't start any revolutions and probably ended up regressing things further, but that last wave of garage, art pop and indie rock that petered out around 2010/2011 was really the last gasp of rock's twilight era, as you put it. The sheer proliferation of music like that in that era at the very least puts it beyond the 2010s in my book in terms of quality and vitality.

  14. 00s represent rock imploding on itself in a mid-tempo alternative corporate mush. Interpol are a perfect example of this. The Mars Volta came along and have us one last blast of that vital energy, but really the 00s were the decade of hip hop taking over, with electronica bubbling along underneath.

    I discovered a ton of great music in that era. Almost none of it rock.