One of the defining indie rock bands of the new millennium, Interpol has never really been as great as that reputation suggests. Despite being the recipient of effusive phrase from critics and hipsters throughout its decade-plus career, Interpol’s work has always been constrained by three key flaws: limited instrumental technique, frequently clumsy lyrics (“The subway is a porno”, anyone?), and what I call the Oasis Effect — that is, like the Britpop kings with their eternal Beatles fixation, it’s hard for the unconverted to accept Interpol as a distinct musical entity or anything close to genius when its music constantly reminds you of that by another band.
That probably sounds a bit harsh to some of you, but I’m a firm believer in rating a group’s merits appropriately. Which is not to say that I find Interpol subpar: in fact, New York-based group has rightly earned its place near the front of the neo post-punk queue by virtue of its deft touch. Instead of being mere replicants, Interpol took the ur-text that is Joy Division and replaced its rough edges and occasionally violent abandon with an austere, post-millennial urban cool, reconfiguring the sound of depression-struck England in the early ‘80s into a refined chillout soundtrack for NYC’s hipster nightspots. And that’s alright, because the boys of Interpol have never been coy about the fact that they are eager clotheshorses with a thick air of romance clinging about them.
Love them or think they’re an overrated ‘80s rehash, as we enter the 2010s Interpol stands firmly in the top echelon of today’s indie rock crop. After a brief dalliance with major label realms, Interpol returns to indie powerhouse Matador for its fourth album. Given the record’s declarative eponymous title (unless it’s your first record, naming your new album after yourself is always going to imply a sense of purpose with it), the album appears intended as a triumphant mission statement, signaling to the world that the band is back in black (naturally) to do what it does best, tighter and better than ever. Except that swarthy Nazi wardrobe enthusiast Carlos Dengler left the band once recording was completed. Whoops.
Listening to Interpol, one might think Dengler was already packing up to leave before the record was finished. The unabashedly gothic throb of Dengler’s bass guitar — both the band’s most derivative and most potent element — is largely downplayed in favor of the wide-open sonic sprawl common to the slower numbers in the band’s catalog, the sort that plays just fine if restrained to a select few deep album cuts. Except in this case, it dominates the album. The first song released to the public back in April, “Lights”, established the album’s gameplan in the way it unraveled gradually over five minutes, reveling in the grand melodrama it generated yet proved fruitless in its search of a proper chorus. The rest of Interpol follows the same vein: four- to five-minute cuts that unfold languidly, forsaking the tight economy that the band typically excelled at for a piano-sprinkled and string-coated spaciousness. The only real exception is “Barricade”, which forgoes the rather formless song-structures found elsewhere for concise guitar hooks, distinct verse-chorus sections, and Paul Banks’ strained chorus of “It starts to feel like a barricade / That keeps us away / To keep us away” (yes, Banks is still singing like Ian Curtis coming out of a transistor radio — you can always count on that being a constant). Naturally, it’s the album’s first single.
Given the band’s lack of blinding instrumental technique, it’s probably not wise for Interpol to try to stretch too far away from its strengths (namely, trading in clipped, minimalist tunes neatly assembled with simple-yet-effective riffs that a five-year-old could play), but what do you know, that’s what the group has decided to do here. An argument can be made that given the emphasis on mood in the band’s image, it’s inevitable that Interpol would test its songwriting boundaries on a large scale by focusing predominantly on sweeping atmospherics intended to envelop rather than hook the ear. An alternate explanation is that the group might have been listening to way too much Arcade Fire lately. Whatever the reason, two unavoidable issues arise as a result of the group’s approach for this record. The first is that the band’s moody post-punk-redux comfort zone has given way to stabs at the sort of generic indie rock grandeur that now plagues many of Interpol’s contemporaries that attempt to tackle grand melodrama: expansive and atmospheric, but too vague, insubstantial, and hampered by the limitations of the performers to actually work. While the Interpol boys never demonstrated any exceptional skill as instrumentalists (the quartet always gave the impression that it was physically incapable of writing anything more complicated than brief single-note melodic ideas), here their limits as composers are clearly demonstrated as they fail to craft their new ambitions into effective songs. The other problem is that Interpol gives the listener the impression that the group wasn’t able to come up with very many hooks in the studio. It’s rather telling that far too many tracks make one wonder if Interpol is about to launch into a cover of “Don’t Fall” by the Chameleons when they kick things off.
On a smaller scale there are some fine sonic snippets to be found in Interpol. Paul Banks often salvages an aimless song by delivering an appropriate melody in his characteristically poised, mannered bleat. Drummer Sam Forgarnio has some of the best moments on the record, handing in the clattering drums in the outro to “Always Malaise” (The Man I Am) and the skipping, syncopated groove of “Try It On”. It eventually becomes apparent that what the self-produced record really needed was a good editor that could help give shape for formless ideas and cut back on unnecessary runtimes. Meanwhile, mixer Alan Moulder seems to be slumming here. Moulder is a man who made his name working with alt-rock masterminds Billy Corgan, Trent Reznor, and Kevin Shields, men with grand visions — and the talent and drive to execute them — who could create absorbing masterpieces loaded with endless detail for listeners to lose themselves in. Too bad Interpol isn’t that kind of band – Interpol is functional, not visionary, and if it can’t be conveyed in stark, chiming guitar riffs and rumbling bass riffs, adding additional elements to enhance the sound is a wasteful exercise.
Is Interpol going to (relatively, given the state of the modern music industry) sell a lot of copies upon release? Oh, certainly. Will it top the Billboard album charts like contemporaneous indie rock icons Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend have done this year? Honestly, I hope not. Not just because it’s a thoroughly average record (which it is). It’s because such a thoroughly average record will symbolically stand before the general public as Interpol’s cumulative career triumph. It was distressing enough that Interpol was always disproportionately exalted in relation to its actual merits. But if Interpol — an album that plainly documents a band stretching itself as far as it can unimpressively go — is what a large number of indie fans are going to settle for in this day and age, I can’t help but shake my head and sigh in response.