[What Went Wrong? is a regular Monday segment in which we examine an artist -- an actor, director, musician, etc. -- and try to pinpoint the exact moment in which their once-promising career went off the rails.]
I don’t, and probably never will, subscribe to the notion that rock and roll is dead. I will, however, buy that it’s in a Tiger Woods-sized slump right now (perhaps The Suburbs winning that Grammy a few years back was rock’s Elin-charging-with-a-club moment?) I’m in no way saying that the Foo Fighters and the Black Keys are bad bands, but when that’s not only the best we’ve got, but all we’ve got… come on, guys, we’re in trouble. It’s the kind of period that can make you nostalgic for a time not that far gone.
If Interpol’s debut LP, Turn On The Bright Lights, came out today, it would be a stunner for completely different reasons. But when it came out ten years ago, it was just another page in the then-heralded “rock revival” period of 2002. In hindsight, it was less a revival than glorious, self-contained moment in time, a moment where rock music thrived because it had room to breathe— because it didn’t need any saving. Sure, the five or so years before it were filled with vapid, post-grunge shlock, but it wasn’t as dire as, say, now. The best bands were merely on the fringes of the radio, the Dismemberment Plans, Flaming Lips, and Modest Mice of the world still destroying our expectations for what rock music could accomplish on a regular basis.
But that span of (roughly) 2002-2005 felt different, as if the best musical minds in New York City had started a Facebook group at a time before Facebook, replying to Julian Casablancas’s first post of “so guys, you wanna change the scene?” To borrow from a recent interview with comedian Aziz Ansari, “I went to school at NYU in the fucking heyday: Strokes, White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol. I remember thinking at the time, ‘Are all these bands really that good?’ And now you look back and say, ‘They definitely were that good.’” Tom Haverford nailed it. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs made rock music simply look easy again. The White Stripes gave Rolling Stone justification for carrying on as a publication (at least until this). And if The Strokes were the embodiment of New York’s booze-soaked nightlife, Interpol was the ensuing hangover combined with the melancholy night-after, the sober recognition that we’re all fucked living in this city (or any city for that matter), but also the welcome reminder that getting fucked doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Bright Lights succeeds in large part because of its sequencing. It opens a song called “Untitled,” a three-minute rhythmic exercise interrupted with thunderous guitars courtesy of band mastermind Daniel Kessler. It contains only one lyric, with singer Paul Banks crooning “I will surprise you sometime. I’ll come around, when you’re down.” Released just months after 9/11 (and sounding at times scarily, though unintentionally, prescient), the line made the record’s mission statement astoundingly clear: even though this city is fucked right now, we can still surprise one another and have each other’s backs. The record then charges into the unstoppable “Obstacle 1,” where Interpol’s main strengths, the one-two punch of drummer Sam Fogarino and bassist Carlos D, are on full display. Then comes “NYC,” which is perhaps the only Interpol song where the chorus completely soars.
The whole album is comprised of great individual songs, but it’s unquestionably stronger as a sum of its parts. The band’s follow-up effort, Antics, is weaker in part because it feels focused on the songs moreso than the album as a whole. The band made a good decision by going for a lighter tone on their second LP, and largely succeeded, but by opening up their songwriting scope, they sacrificed a bit of the atmosphere Bright Lights generated. It resulted in some of Interpol’s all-time best tracks—“Evil,” “Take You on a Cruise,” and especially “C’mere”—and it’s still defended by some, who are wrong, as the band’s best album. But mostly, it came as a “phew” moment to fans dreading a sophomore slump, keeping them hungry for another potential masterpiece.
Our Love To Admire was not that. Like Antics, it’s not a bad album—of all Interpol’s discography, it probably deserves a second chance from fans who dismissed it the first time around, as it’s aged pretty solidly—but the problem was that it was an album no one wanted. It was Interpol’s first and only effort on major label Capitol, and the music feels conflicted as a result. Some songs try for Bright Lights’ melancholy tone but sound dreary. Some try at Antics’ lighter approach but spin into goofy territory (“No I In Threesome” is the best song completely defeated by its premise before it even had a chance to start, possibly of all time. I’m exaggerating, but only a little.) One sounds a lot like a Pixies song. In trying to keep everyone happy, Interpol made their first less-than-stellar album. How much label interference played into that is tough to say, but it was now 2007, and Interpol had signs of a band that had showed us all of their tricks at first glance and was straining for ideas.
Admire also committed the worst sin a band can make three albums into a career: it highlighted previous weaknesses in their discography that had been glossed over by the mastery of their earlier song-craft. Banks had always been more of a curiosity than a wonder when it came to lyrics, but some of the lines on Admire were so bizarre that they forced you to go back to lines on the previous two albums that may have initially sounded mysterious and cool, when really they were just kind of, no other way to say it, dumb. In 2002, “we’ve got 200 couches where you can sleep tight” might have made a curious listener say “wait, what!” In 2007, it forces the same listener to return to the lyric, re-evaluate it amidst what came after, and say, “wait, what?” That’s the risk a band catching lightning in a bottle takes when they decide to keep going forward, and without the song-writing to back it up, lines like “You look so young like a daisy in my lazy eyes” sadly suggested that Interpol had already run out of things to say.
The band’s most dismal statement was a self-titled 2011 release that saw them trying to recapture what made them special at their start without remembering any of what that constituted. It goes for Bright Lights’ taxi-ride-amidst-a-downpour vibe but forgets to write great songs. It’s technically assured, thanks to that rhythm section (though this would be Carlos D’s last contribution to the group), but lacks big moments. And in the span of just one song, single “Barricade” captures everything that’s frustrating about Interpol ten years later: it’s filled with the group’s hookiest verses since Antics, with Kessler and Carlos playfully bouncing off one another and Banks delivering actual, earworm memories—but then the whole thing comes to a grinding halt at a baffling, genuinely unpleasant chorus. Interpol giveth, Interpol taketh away.
Bright Lights and Antics were some of the first records that really got me into that haze of rock and roll back in high school, and against all odds, the band is still together, planning a fifth album for release in 2013. Though it’s now clear they’ll never top those first two albums, I’m still pulling for the new trio to find some of that early spark, produce a surprise success, and if nothing else, leave us with some closure after a run that started so high, then just kind of continued until it became a perpetual slate of nothingness. There’s really no reason to stay optimistic, but I’ll always pull for this band. After all, Banks once promised us that he’d surprise us sometime, and come around when we’re down. Wouldn’t that be nice?
So, Where Did It Go Wrong?: Inking the papers with Capitol. This is a band that never should have signed to a major label. It compromised their sound and made it more difficult for them to find a coherent direction, in a time when they really needed that. Sadly, they never quite recovered.