splendid > reviews > 8/26/2002
Turn On the Bright Lights

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "NYC"

Buy me now
Contrary to all that crazy hype, Interpol doesn't really sound like Joy Division. Not much, anyway. Not if you've actually listened to Joy Division in the last six months.

Sure, vocalist Paul Banks sounds a little bit like Ian Curtis, but that's because he's actually singing; any reasonably deep-voiced, mature-sounding guy who doesn't do the emo-screamo thing stands a reasonable chance of sounding a little like Ian Curtis (and besides, Banks -- and Interpol -- actually sounds a lot more like Kitchens of Distinction's Patrick Fitzgerald). Joy Division is simply the most obvious comparison, or easiest bit of critical shorthand, on a long list of sounds-likes -- the most obvious embodiment of the post-punk zeitgeist channelled by Interpol. Of course, Joy Division never had access to the sort of technology that most modern bands consider "entry level" stuff; a piece like Interpol's shifting, shoegazing "NYC" would've been light-years beyond their means, and probably too posh-sounding for their tastes. For Joy Division, simple, threadbare music was a fact of life. For Interpol, it's a stylistic choice.

And it's by no means a bad one. There's something quite compelling about Interpol's sound -- the urgent, spartan guitar lines, hazy feedback sheen and ominous, funereal basslines suggest a world of grey, rainy autumn afternoons and bleak, snowy winter nights. We've all been there -- Interpol are counting on it. When you're eighteen, the world feels hopeless a lot of the time; the collapse of a month-old relationship can be as deadly and destructive as any nuclear explosion. And if you don't have to actually live in a stark urban wasteland, dystopian angst can actually be a very romantic concept -- suffering makes you beautiful, remember? And Interpol, dressed in black and steeped in gloom, make beautiful music.

On an album whose happiest moments ("Untitled", "NYC") seem cautious and artificial, minor-key melodies and sharp, nervous chords reign supreme. "Obstacle 1" advances in a series of two-note needle-jabs and busy percussion, with occasional, economical use of Full-Blown Chords-and-Feedback Maelstrom mode for emphasis. The brittle, edgy approach is well-suited to Banks's vocals -- he's anguished and sardonic, as if quietly reeling from his own romantic tragedy. He's in better shape on "PDA", singing hopefully over the song's rhythmic layered guitars and reveling in the major-key chorus, although the music counters with its own lingering cynicism; upbeat finish aside, it's a song as uncertain as the romance of former enemies.

Angry epics like the razor-sharp "Roland" and "Obstacle 2" assert Interpol's mastery of the post-punk idiom, while slower cuts -- "Stella was a diver and she was always down", "Leif Erikson" -- gently showcase Turn On the Bright Lights' subtly slick production. And if Banks ever decides to hang himself -- unlikely, given the fact that Bright Lights' sharpened notes owe more to recording quality than youthful desperation -- "Hands Away" offers ample evidence that his bandmates will be able to muster a credible synth-pop outfit in his memory.

Sometimes the band's ideas don't quite gel. "Say Hello to the Angels", with its "Eye of the Tiger" intro, rhythm borrowed (intentionally or not) from Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine", and traditional post-punk underpinnings, sounds like two incomplete songs spot-welded into a Frankenstein mishmash. It's a discomfitingly bad fit -- the upbeat "Walking on Sunshine" section pulls against the flailing, angry foundation riff, resulting in a track that's half pop song and half speed-dirge, eager to tear itself apart and end its pain -- that works best when the happy bits are suppressed, which doesn't happen nearly often enough.

I enjoyed Turn On the Bright Lights. You will too. However, I don't think it guarantees a long, happy future for Interpol. It's easy to laud the band as heirs to the post-punk throne, especially if you're tired of sound-alike garage bands, but there's little here that suggests Interpol has a game-plan for moving beyond the scope of their influences. Don't believe me? Listen to Bright Lights five or six times. Try to identify the "tricks" the band uses over and over again (i.e. compare "Obstacle 1" and "Stella was a diver..."). If these guys wrote another album tomorrow, would it be more of the same? I don't mind when a band sells me a piece of my own past -- but I'm only going to pay for it once.

Buy Turn On the Bright Lights. It's great. You'll enjoy it. But don't mistake the next best thing for the Next Big Thing. Interpol still have a lot of proving to do.



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