Interpol: Turn on the Bright Lights

Devon Powers

Turn on the Bright Lights is the album modern followers of post-punk have been waiting for. It is the album that makes all the hub-bub about the New York City music scene of late seem justified.


Turn on the Bright Lights

Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2002-08-20
UK Release Date: 2002-08-19

I find something terribly tragic about Interpol. It's more than Paul Banks' elegiac vocals, which stir my gut every time I hear them, so much so that I often have to pause songs in the middle to catch my breath and count to 10. It's more than the chilled contemplation and obvious wit in their songwriting, which send the mind reeling and the body into fits in an attempt to make sense of the rhythmic and ideological formations. And it's more than the sometimes frightening similarity between their sound and that of premier tragic band Joy Division, the history of said group giving depth and volume to Turn on the Bright Lights like some kind of musical footnote.

No -- what's heartbreaking has to do with New York City, the metropolis Interpol call home, and the furious way its media machine can devour a band and hoist it to unnatural heights, whether deserving or no. This feeding frenzy more often than not exhausts a band's potential prematurely, inviting detractors and fans almost one for one, until sheer buzzkill can make anyone want to avoid certain artists, even ones they love. Interpol -- who have been gaining attention for months thanks to live shows, an EP released earlier this summer, and the infectious velocity of the song "PDA" -- could very well fall prey to this overhyped fate, becoming just another "Band of the Moment". But they're musicians that deserve reverence that takes longer than a New York minute. They deserve to be listened to on repeat, studied, and absorbed, because they're doing more than simply riding a trend -- they're writing history.

Turn on the Bright Lights begins with the shivering "Untitled", which opens with a pulsing, solitary guitar filtered through echoing effects that carry on for over half a minute. A post-punk trademark in slow motion, this technique immediately signals that the song is a sober, deliberative one, and that Interpol are not a band out for cheap thrills. The lyrics betray this: "I will surprise you sometimes / I'll come around," Banks repeats again and again, each time more confidently than the next but managing to remain understated, soothing. Bass and drums by this time have joined in, and once Banks breaks singing they cascade, swelling to a contained yet spectacular volume, pushing the edges to their near breaking point before easing down.

"Obstacle 1" follows, an incessant, throbbing number in which Banks' vocals quake with manic urgency -- think Ian Curtis possessed by a wild-eyed, '80s David Byrne. The song masterfully pairs opposites -- ejaculatory guitar blats against systematic drumming, rhythmic and ordered bass against panicked singing that often drowns in the noise (with the notable exception of the song's most disturbing lyric, "you'll go stabbing yourself in the neck.") The slow and symmetrical "NYC", also on their aforementioned EP, follows. Focusing on the simple beauty of Banks' singing and his introspective lyricism, the song goes back and forth between visions of public chaos and more private, alienated turmoil: "Subway, she is a porno / Pavements, they are a mess / I know you supported me for a long time / Somehow, I'm not impressed."

Though much of Turn on the Bright Lights plays on the heady solemnity of post-punk-meets-modern-isolation, there are songs that toy with other influences. The gripping "PDA", already a New York jukebox classic, burns with the intelligent rage so characteristic of The Fall; "Say Hello to the Angels" uses a bopping minor guitar chord progression that's reminiscent of the Pixies; "The New" has the bruising emotion of Echo & the Bunnymen. And the album ends with "Leif Erikson", which, like its Viking namesake, sails the album toward the serene potential of another world.

Plainly stated, Turn on the Bright Lights is the album modern followers of post-punk have been waiting for. It is the album that makes all the hub-bub about the New York City music scene of late seem justified; it is the album that makes the time we're living through feel like an era rather than a haphazard, disconnected series of events. I don't generally believe in making commercial pleas in reviews, but I strongly suggest that you go out and buy this album. It will arrest you during your waking hours, stir you from your sleeping, and, all the while, it will broodingly break your heart.

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