What does it signify when a band returns to its former indie label, where it released two really great records, after venturing forth into major label territory without making much of an impression? What does it mean when that same band names its fourth album, back at its old label, eponymously?
Those questions reel through my mind listening to Interpol, by Interpol, as if we needed any kind of a reminder about this band that helped kickstart the New York rock revival around 2002. Along with The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, this was one of the best new bands of the new millennium.
Maybe they lost their way at Capitol, and maybe they are trying to get it back on this album. It is rich, epic, grand, and sweeping in its vision, and the music is lushly orchestrated, full of masterful tempo changes, tricky drumming, staccato strings that sound like stiletto heels on cobble stones, shuffling drum beats, even horns!
“Success” is the opening track, and it starts off with a great bass riff but never goes anywhere. The second number, “Memory Serves,” is riveting with its buzz-sawing guitars and strings and Paul Banks singing in anguish over an Ooh-la-la-la refrain. Very atmospheric. Dense. “It would be so nice to take you/ I only ever tried to make you smile/ No matter what we’re gonna keep you occupied/ but only at your place” sounds ominous. Disturbing.
“Summer Well” follows right along in that theme, and may be the best song on the album with its slashing guitars and bouncing bass lines. Then the album goes into “Lights” (which drags on for one minute-thirty seconds without a drum beat and never goes anywhere) and brightens up with “Barricade” with its cheerfully tongue-in-cheek observation, “I did not take to analysis so I had to make up my mind.”
And then the album ascends into the amazing opulence of “Always Malaise (The Man I Am).” The song just keeps shifting keys and tempos as it climbs uphill to its climax. This is a work of musical sophistication like nothing Interpol has done before. Symphonic.
One big misfire: the annoying piano intro and extro of “Try It On.” But it recovers from the opening and turns into one of the better songs on the album. And from that it segues into the next-to-last track “All of the Ways” with its sadistic, “Tell me you’re mine, tell me you’re mine to break, to break the ice” and the chilling “I know the way you’ll make it up to me.”
It almost seems necessary after the intensity of that song to have one last number to close out the album, and Interpol finds the right note with “The Undoing.” Cello and organ huff below a chiming guitar as the singer says, “I was on my way to tell you it’s no good/ I was on the way to chasing my damage.” It sort of lets you know that the protagonist of this tortured song cycle has recognized himself and come to peace with it.
The songs spiral further deeper and downward into the obsession and despair of this character mooning over a lost love. I know that lead singer Paul Banks gets compared to Ian Curtis a lot, and the band is given the post-punk nod for molding themselves after Joy Division and the Chameleons, both dark and brooding bands from Manchester UK.
But the orchestral grandeur of the music on this album nods darkly to The Swans, a 1990s post-punk band that earned the mantle it wears and is still playing and recording to this day. Listen to “(She’s A) Universal Emptiness”or “Miracle of Love” or their cover version of “Love Will Keep Us Apart,” and then tell me if you think Paul Banks still sounds like Ian Curtis.
In a lot of ways, this album marks a turning point in the level of musical sophistication that Interpol has displayed on previous outings but also marks a turning point in its attitude. No longer guitars, bass, and drums and defiant attitude, this album takes a more adult look at relationships, especially the variety gone wrong.
It’s ironic and sad that it also marks the last time Carlos D. was recorded with the band. Other critics have said his bass playing was the backbone of the band, and that he was probably the most talented musician in the group. Well, if this is to be the swan song of Carlos D., then why not go out with the band’s most richly satisfying, most musically ambitious and satisfyingly difficult album to date.
It seems to me that Interpol is saying, with this self-titled fourth album, back at Matador, “We’re back, and you may recognize us, although we’re not the same.”