Of all the currently active rock bands to look on the bright side of our current global predicaments, did Interpol make your list? “A few of the songs, in particular, have really unabashedly positive sentiments,” notes lead singer Paul Banks. “Something that feels good is the aspiration.” “We really extracted the honey out of the situation,” said drummer Sam Fogarino of the band’s willingness to work through the obstacles presented by COVID-19. “The process of writing this record and searching for tender, resonant emotions took me back to teenage years,” gushes guitarist Daniel Kessler. “It was transformative, almost euphoric.” Banks also stated bluntly that he knew he could “focus on how fucked everything is, but I feel now is the time when being hopeful is necessary, and a still-believable emotion within what makes Interpol Interpol.” Well, as he sang on the band’s debut album 20 years ago, “I will surprise you sometime / I’ll come around.”
That isn’t to imply that The Other Side of Make-Believe is a shamelessly joyful album. It is, after all, co-produced by Flood, the same man responsible for helping to create one of rock ‘n’ roll’s bleakest albums in Depeche Mode‘s Songs of Faith and Devotion. Rather, this is Interpol’s take on how to stay positive. The sound that got them global recognition years ago remains largely untouched, save for a few odd rhythms and piano licks. Banks still sounds like Matthew Sweet with a deepened timbre fronting a streamlined Echo & the Bunnymen. The guitars still work as two rhythmically-played lead instruments rather than being divided into just lead and rhythm. The tempos range from mid to upbeat, and the keys are mostly minor. In other words, Interpol aren’t going in for a makeover anytime soon. They will, however, sprinkle a few new tricks into their time-tested formula. Blink, and you might miss them, but they’re there.
“Into the Night”, for instance, shifts the meter almost too much for a group that isn’t classified as a prog band. The introduction is in an odd-numbered signature but changes to a six pattern in the chorus that is not a waltz. “Greenwich” tosses a sticky wad of atonality into its center, letting an all-too-brief noisy guitar interlude smother two overlapping vocal tracks of Banks’ muttering. The single “Something Changed” lets Fogarino play a light swing beat over the verses as Banks airs out his shame: “I got a numb skull / I got a green heart.” As the chorus kicks in, Fogarino locks into a more conventional rhythm that compliments the piano. “Something changed, well I’ve got in / We all suffer the same things.” This late in their career, I was not prepared to encounter one of Interpol’s strongest songs on The Other Side of Make-Believe, but there it is.
After two very low tones emanating from what sounds like a heavily reverberated cello, the album’s opener, “Toni”, starts with a piano gentle enough to suggest the morning sun. “Flame down Pacific Highway / Still in shape, my methods refined,” Banks assures us as Fogarino counts out the beat with his kick drum. As everyone enters, Banks admits, “I like to see them win / I like the inspiration like / It’s going in the right direction / And that’s to me.” The single “Fables” follows, plunging The Other Side of Make-Believe into a slow but somewhat interesting plod as it shares too many harmonic and tempo traits with “Into the Night”. “It’s time we made something stable / We’re in the sights of perfect danger,” warns Banks, the same guy who says that “the nobility of the human spirit is to rebound.”
The Other Side of Make-Believe has its share of moments that sound good while they’re playing but just can’t make a lasting impression after they stop. It’s certainly not for the lack of trying. You can tell that Interpol really wanted to kick the jams into gear on “Renegade Hearts”, a song with a jagged guitar riff and drums that batter the beat instead of just keeping it. There’s even a cool little bit of guitar noodling buried in the chorus’ mix. “Gran Hotel” has an impressively driving beat in search of a tune. “All that we’ve got to be is candid / And gentle / To be certified / And I really love to mentor.”
The haunted house keyboards that serve as a bed for “Big Shot City” is undoubtedly novel, but it needs more to snag one’s attention successfully. “Go Easy (Palermo)” concludes the album with the sinewy mix of guitars, one of Interpol’s hallmarks. “Go easy / Doesn’t matter what you bring,” Banks gently sings, hinting at that tolerant bit of optimism that he promised in The Other Side of Make-Believe’s press release. Coming in under three minutes, “Go Easy (Palermo)” mainly stands out for its brevity.
The bad news is that The Other Side of Make-Believe suffers from a gaggle of forgettable material. The good news is that the record shows us all that Interpol are willing to try a few new tricks as they age. The even better information is that you get “Something Changed” out of the deal. Should their focus head in that direction, they may bring us their best album yet in the future.