Turn On The Bright Lights is, to put it bluntly, an astonishing work. There are multiple reasons this album, and Interpol with it, should have faded into obscurity following its 2002 release, yet it has endured as the defining album of post-9/11 America.
Start with the comparisons: Joy Division, the Smiths, the Cure, R.E.M., the Strokes. Then the hype: the release of a series of EPs in the midst of an exploding New York post-punk scene which sent bloggers and music sites, already salivating over the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, into a mouth-foaming frenzy.
Finally the band itself: a quartet of standoffish, self-important East Coast blue-bloods who exude an almost callous indifference to, well, everyone. Upon the eve of the album’s August release, these ingredients concocted the perfect storm for commercial and critical backlash, with the group’s descent back into the sewers of Brooklyn almost certain to follow. Then everyone shut up and listened.
Turn on the Bright Lights is about image. It positively swims in darkness and decadence, self-absorption and anxiety. The band themselves, exuding arrogant superiority in their dark, expensive suits and impossibly cool demeanor, exist in some dark netherworld, a parallel universe where Wall Street rams into a back alley dance club. Accordingly, the album contains forty-nine minutes of quintessential post-punk characterized by lyrics that sound like they were written on a psychologist’s couch, and arrangements that careen to and fro from the chaotic to the serene.
None of these elements would work were it not for the aesthetic quality and consistency of the album, which are executed to near-perfection. Interpol’s dynamic rhythm section (Carlos D. on bass and Sam Fogarino on drums) provides the group’s backbone, driving the album’s deliberate yet unpredictable pace from barely-contained mania to icy calm with seamless grace and fusion. Likewise, the guitars of Daniel Kessler and Paul Banks spend much of the album sparring with sparse calculation, only to occasionally slip into ethereal grandeur (“PDA”), or scorched-Earth malevolence (“The New”).
Banks’ vocals complete the band’s sound, the delivery itself evoking a hollow beauty that coats itself in a chilly, hypnotically cool veneer that cracks ever so slightly to reveal the uncertainty and longing that lie beneath the surface.
The magnificent sum of these parts is a musical struggle between Interpol’s conflicting forces: the band’s projected confidence and invincibility, signified by Kessler’s guitar and Banks’ vocals; and an underlying, emerging anxiety and self-doubt. In fact, Interpol has a literary twin in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho; Patrick Bateman, the psychopathic, self-obsessed Wall Street executive, faces a similar struggle as he attempts to maintain his flashy image and ultra-cool façade even as he increasingly gives in to his inner feelings of self-doubt and mania.
The fact that Interpol managed to craft such a vivid and powerful persona in Turn on the Bright Lights is testament to their combined abilities while also doubling as an appropriate representation of the gloomy melancholy and vulnerability of post 9/11 America, particularly New York City, with both parties fighting to hold onto their shaken feelings of invincibility and supremacy even as things began to unravel before their very eyes.
Interpol — Turn On The Bright Lights: Track-by-track review
The album’s understated introduction, “Untitled” nearly matches the unorthodox presumptiveness of its name, opening with Daniel Kessler’s ominous, echoing guitar strains. The foreboding, eerie calm is soon shattered, however, by the abrupt intrusion of the rhythm section, with Carlos D.’s bass asserting in particular asserting a blunt cockiness with but a hint of wavering uncertainty.
Finally, Banks enters, cryptically and inaudibly uttering, “Surprise sometimes will come around”, repeating the phrase more and more strongly each time as if to reassure himself, before stating authoritatively:
I will surprise you sometimes
I’ll come around when you’re down.
The song fades lazily from there, both a warm-up and a warning call for the rest of the album.
2. “Obstacle 1”
What exactly is the obstacle in “Obstacle 1”? Does it matter?
Probably not. The song itself is a morose, stream-of-conscious ramble set to intermittent flashes of guitar and almost-playful bass. Fogarino’s insistent drumming is the backdrop, launching the song into its furious chorus amidst Banks’ howls about “stabbing yourself in the neck.”
The track shifts gears for the song’s finale as the guitars take full command, amplifying the anguish behind Banks’ disturbingly pathetic cries that “she put the weights into my little heart.”
The band collects itself, at least somewhat, for “NYC”, which catches Banks at his most personal. The rest of the band emits a resigned sense of gloom which hovers around Banks, who lets down his austere guard, relating the depression he holds toward himself and the cold, concrete environment he inhabits.
While much of Banks’ moaning throughout the album feels like it should be met with apathy, this brief breakdown of his outward image strikes as the most sincere. Subsequently, the song’s surprisingly positive shift towards its conclusion, when Banks’ trades his fragility for a sudden burst of resolve with the desperate, powerful boast “It’s up to me now, turn on the bright lights”, remains its most gratifying moment, and one of the standout parts of the album as a whole.
The band’s five-minute tour de force.
The most exceptional track on an album seething with them, “PDA” was the song that introduced Interpol to most of the world, and with good reason. Essentially encompassing everything the band represents, the song is Interpol at its best.
Opening with Fogarino’s thunderous percussion, a veritable call to arms, the song dives head-on into a cavernous guitar assault, the single-minded focus and blunt force of the unflinching arrangement hitting the listener like a stampede. It is almost a relief when Banks enters, beginning his attack on an ex-lover:
Yours is the only version of my desertion
That I could ever subscribe to
That is all that I can do
with a nasally, contemptuous enunciation that replaces the awkwardness with menace. As the verse continues, the guitars kick into overdrive, emerging from the rhythm section’s tangled, hypnotic mess only to run headlong into the chorus, instantly transforming the song’s vengeance into sublimity. The circular intonations of “Sleep tight, grim right / We have two hundred couches where you can” invoke an inescapable hopelessness, returning again and again with hypnotic focus.
A slight pause occurs between the chorus and the second verse, the lone gasp of breath the song takes, followed mercilessly by more vengeful anger from Banks, who growls about “resenting a position that is past resentment”. By the second chorus’s conclusion, the song appears to be on its last legs, ready to let the issue go.
Not quite yet. Without taking a breath, Kessler unleashes an insistent sonic riff that instantly takes over the song as the rest of the band abruptly halts. Within moments, the bass joins in, rising to meet the stratospherical arch of the guitar and forming a dynamic fusion which is then met by Banks’ own hesitant accompaniment. The result offers a few moments of blissful optimism, perhaps unmatched on the album, before the bass drops and Fogarino’s drums come crashing back in, culminating in a high-octane final sprint led by Kessler’s soaring guitar.
The song ends with Kessler’s final fading cry, seemingly appearing out of oblivion, moaning with a mix of hope and resignation:
Something to say
Something to do
Nothing to say
Nothing to do
5. “Say Hello To The Angels”
Proof of Interpol’s astonishing ability to lead a song one way only to shift gears without warning in a completely different direction, “Say Hello To The Angels” leads off with a clamoring mix of insistent, shrieking guitars and galloping drums that appear to signal an imminent rock rampage as it climaxes, only to break down into a funky groove driven by Carlos D.’s manic bassline as Banks continues his bitter musings about a broken love life.
At the end of the chorus, the band slows down barely enough to reflect on its own frenetic melancholy before springing into the full-blown panzer attack its opening promised, with Banks delivering the lyrics:
When I’m feeling lazy
It’s probably because
I’m saving all my energy to pick up
When you move into my airspace
at so great a speed its almost cruel to the poor listeners trying to comprehend what he is saying.
Not that there is any time for such contemplation; the chorus’s alarming rate soon begins to let up in increments that morph into relaxed, almost lazy atmospherics, save for the stuttering command of Carlos D. The shift casts the song’s focus on Banks’s soulful assertion, “Baby, baby, you’re the best” before switching back into overdrive over the fearful cries “Can I get there this way?”
Once again, the thumping rock-funk of the first verse returns, this time with an extra dose of frantic desire, before disintegrating finally into a glorious menace, choppy guitar riffs falling into the rhythm section’s chaotic haze, the bass keeping step with Fogarino’s funky staccato before breaking off into a looming glare amid Banks’s understated growling of the title.
6. “Hands Away”
Interpol’s depressing aesthetic reaches a new low on “Hands Away”, which might be one of the weaker songs on the album but remains intriguing nonetheless, if for no other reason than the mood’s uncertain wavering between isolated suffering and melodrama.
Soft, whispering guitar plucks instantly mire in the song in tranquil depression as Banks offers barely audible, and less intelligible lyrics that nonetheless sound like the last words of a man dying a slow, painful death. Fogarino’s drums channels Megan White with knowing simplicity in time to save the song from total despondency, but any hopes of an upbeat turn fade as the minor-key intonations of guitars and synths rise and fall aimlessly. The song’s spare, bleak lyrics add one final damning thought before the song’s frail conclusion:
Homespun desperation’s knowing inside
Your cover’s always blown
…leaving its listeners with the sense they are being led to the gallows, or at least more alone than they had thought.
7. “Obstacle 2”
Difficult to see coming, following the tone Interpol has set in the album’s first half, is “Obstacle 2”, which shares no apparent qualities with “Obstacle 1” other than a) It’s about a girl, and b) Interpol wrote it.
The song also answers a few questions: Is Banks capable of writing lyrics about a positive relationship with a girl? Yes. Is Banks capable of writing nauseatingly, cheesy, yet still incoherent lyrics about a positive relationship with a girl? Most definitely.
The song starts with a sense of immediacy as Banks abruptly articulates sweet nothings to his girl over guitar that sounds suitably flirtatious. The entrance of Carlos D.’s booming bass, which becomes more and more of an attention-whore throughout the album, complemented by Fogarino’s skillful background accompaniment, creates a cautiously optimistic palette on which Banks can showcase his rambling, Hallmark-card worthy musings.
A hushed interlude interjects to add playful suspense, followed by a lurch into the song’s chorus, which staggers into a haphazard emulation of the verse, as Banks’s inarticulate vocals murmur something about standing “by all this drinking if it helps me through these days”, the music itself acting as Bank’s interior monologue as he drunkenly divulges his passions at some posh downtown party around four in the morning.
The remainder of the song features more of the same until the band can keep up the dopey façade no longer, almost pathologically slipping into an intense Manhattanite Mr. Hyde. Carlos D.’s bass, at first in the background, forces itself upon the listener as Banks oohs longingly and Kessler’s guitar chimes righteously, the bullying conclusion pushing the listeners into a corner whereas moments before the song only wanted to take them to bed.
8. “Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down”
Interpol must take deranged joy in the naming of their song titles, which combined are at once vaguely offensive, confusing, and hilarious. Similarly, there is simply neither need nor reason for the drum count-off and literal introduction (“This one’s called ‘Stella Was a Diver And She Was Always Down'”) in “Stella”; the whole thing just works.
Kessler’s guitars ring with auspicious concern, quickly overwhelming any second thoughts about the opening, and are soon matched by Kessler’s furious drumming and vocals about a mysterious, conceited, no doubt gorgeous girl absolutely convinced that everyone in New York City notices her when she passes. The bass enters soon enough, intermittently slicing through the gloomy fog of the verse and momentarily ceasing Banks’s moaning, but then the guitars start gathering and rise like a tidal wave over the listener, eventually crashing down on Banks’s fitted cries with total domination.
The vocals, drowned for a second by this unchecked march, soon resurface to proclaim “She broke away, broke away!” as if they were announcing the end of the world, and at this point it becomes clear that we are dealing with another ex-lover. The process then repeats, but this time Banks’s subjective observations give way to untangling longing, emoting at the second verse’s end the bitter truth Banks has been unable to face:
Stella I love you!
The wrathful chorus returns, the cries of “She broke away, broke away!” repeating themselves an extra time as the inescapable truth enfolds Banks. After this physical battery/release, the song nearly dies; the lone, suspended mourning of Kessler’s guitar hangs on by a thread, as if unsure whether or not to continue, until a stubborn bass line affirms the need for more soul-cleansing.
As the song dejectedly limps along to its finale, Banks, seemingly pulled-together, manages to admit:
Well, she was my catatonic sex toy
She went down down
Down there into the sea
Yeah she went down, down, down there
Down there for me
The song’s meandering end comes soon thereafter, but not before Banks chokingly whispers his final desperate pleas to his subject as the music fades out.
While “Stella’s” intriguingly-named topic revealed herself to be little more than another of Banks’s endless series of heartbreaking female associates, the man in “Roland’s” title comes from a more ominous part of his mind.
Kessler’s guitar twangs obtusely to begin the song, slowing down so Banks can urge “C’mon, c’mon”, his command followed with rapt immediacy by Carlos D.’s peppy bass lines and equally willing accompanying guitar. The vicious, jungle-beat entrance of Fogarino’s drums quickly sends the song devolving into appropriately macabre theatre as Banks takes on the role of storyteller, beginning his tale with the clever insinuations of:
“My best friend’s a butcher
He has sixteen knives
He carries them all over the town
At least he tries
As the explicit content of the story emerges in Banks’s details, the arrangement veers into a positively maniacal chorus, Banks himself gleefully shouting:
“He severed segments secretly
You like that
He always took the time to speak with me
I liked him for that
The song becomes even more disconcerting once the underlying implications of Banks’s tale offer the ghastly revelation that Banks is, in fact, Roland, suggesting his own dual personalities and inner bloodlust. The song’s vocal production, slightly skewed to make Banks himself sound somewhat off, confirm the evil whimsy, and the scorching, sonic abandonment in the climactic guitar solo concludes the song with an exclamation point scratched in blood.
10. “The New”
“The New” starts out as Interpol’s attempt at redemption, peaceful contentment, and enduring happiness, so the listener knows it’s doomed to fail before Banks is halfway through the first verse.
After the exhausting pace set by the last two songs, the placid, occasional piano reverberations and tired, contemplating guitar strums are more or less a necessity. Banks himself seems worn out when he sighs:
I wish I could live free
I hope it’s not beyond me
Settling down, it takes time
One day we’ll live together and life will be better
I have it here, yeah in my mind
The hopefulness of such thoughts appears genuine, but the certainty of success at once appears in doubt as the lines hover over lurking, understated rhythm section. Unsurprisingly, Banks’s inner anguish and doubt manifest themselves shortly thereafter in the actually sympathetic line, “Baby, my heart’s been breaking”, the first cracks in Banks’s crumbling shell of self-control and outward cool, which falls apart amidst lines such as:
I can’t pretend I need to defend
Some part of me from you
I know I’ve spent some time all lying
Wrecked and lost, having struggled for far too long, Banks and the group let the melancholy ease quietly dissipate into quiet, ambivalent guitar strains and unobtrusive rhythm. The mood of the song and fate of Banks, his attempt to relate to the ambiguous audience having fallen by the wayside, for the briefest time, hang in the balance. Then it succumbs.
The rhythm section kicks in with solitary notes of dual menace struck twice, then twice again, then twice again as the guitar warms up for its inevitable clash. First the bass, then the guitar, and finally the entire group mutates into a vengeful blitzkrieg suggesting the loss of total control in its persona, then to the rescue comes Banks, shouting above the fray in sheer desperation, “You’re looking alright tonight, I think we should go!”
But the battle continues momentarily only to rest with a shudder, rev back up, then fade in exhaustion with only wounded guitar chords left standing, signifying perhaps Banks’s victory over the monster inside of him.
11. “Leif Erikson”
Like its title suggests, “Leif Erikson” is as serene as a boat ride through the glacial arctic, its relaxed confidence echoing in the reassured strains of Kessler’s opening guitar. When Banks and the rhythm section enter at once, there lacks the usual precipitous juxtaposition of chaos and cool; rather, the entire band is in sync at this point, demonstrating an invigorated veneer of icy composure, which may or may not be nothing more than the superficial makeup it was earlier in the song.
Rather than reform himself, Banks seems content merely to be back to his presentable self, his thoughts expressed in lyrics completely devoid of empathy or even emotion itself. Even when referring to the current relationship he appears to be enjoying, Banks’s lyrics are vain and indifferent to anyone but himself:
She feels that my sentimental side
Should be held with kids gloves
But she doesn’t know that I left my urge in the icebox
The rhythm remains untypically stoic throughout the song, delineating very little from its original course in complete concentration as the guitars harmonize in a tone that is not quite pleasant.
Nonetheless, Banks seems mildly pleased with his current status, and the group seems to assert a new control over itself that still fails to be completely convincing, with Banks’s final line on the album acting almost as an explanation for what has just taken place, intoning “My love’s subliminal”, almost hoping that saying it makes it true, even though the rest of the immaculate Turn On The Bright Lights suggests a very different story.
Turn On The Bright Lights by Interpol
“Say Hello To The Angels”
“Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down”