My first memory of Interpol is a moment of whiplash that made me reflexively blurt out, “Hey, fuck you.” It was circa 2004 and I was in high school, just discovering new music and becoming my own arbiter of what I thought sounded Cool. The alternative scene and New York in particular were awash in post-punk revival and I liked it, but had no idea what it was reviving. And that’s when I heard a burned copy of Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, released a few years earlier in 2002 and ultimately one of the the very best albums of the decade.
The opening track, “Untitled,” fades in with hypnotically trilling guitars replete with echo and reverb, and as Carlos D’s brooding bass came crashing in alongside the beat I knew I was in for a unique listening experience. “Obstacle 1” challenged my youthful conception of what a hook could be with a chorus more yelped than sung (“She can read/ She’s bad” is the titular obstacle). Tightly staccato guitars rein in Paul Banks’s increasingly desperate voice, calling and responding to each other when the singer cuts out.
The third track, “NYC,” tones it down again for a ruminant nighttime walk through the city’s post-Giuliani, post-9/11 streets: “I’m sick of spending these lonely nights/ Training myself not to care.” As a Brooklyn kid just starting to explore the brighter lights of the city at night myself, and obviously very convinced of the cosmic significance of my teenage moodiness, I was sold. This album was fucking cool. Then Banks, addressing the city streets directly, croons, “I know you’ve supported me for a long time/ Somehow, I’m not impressed.” Wait a minute. “Hey, fuck you,” I said defensively, betrayed, addressing the band directly. “You call yourselves a New York City band and don’t even appreciate the damn place?” But the song is more introspection than an assessment of its setting, and reflects the kind of meditative ambivalence toward just about everything that can only be born of, or perhaps cured by, a lonely walk through city streets at night. And anyway, it’s impossible to stay mad at an album that sounds this good.
Such a sustainedly cool soundscape is perhaps best exemplified by the instrumental breakdown midway through “PDA.” A lone guitar’s repetitious strumming is all that remains once the final iteration of the chorus finishes up, soon to be joined by further contrapuntal guitars and a high bassline until the room is full of harmonious strumming and the drums reenter. “Something to say, something to do/ Nothing to say, there’s nothing to do,” the backup finally sings. It’s an utterly beautiful musical moment illustrative of the album’s impressive range. These sorts of moments are seamlessly interwoven with notes of sexuality, surreality, and silliness, like on “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down.”
Across their range Interpol both evokes titans of post-punk in a way that others in the revivalist vanguard like the Strokes never really did — indeed, it’s hard to find a more apt comparison for Banks’ early voice and style than that of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis — and establishes a sound that is sufficiently unique to nullify any claims of derivativeness. Interpol never quite reached these heights again — their 2004 followup Antics is a very good album but it’s kind of all downhill from there — but certainly here the stylistic ingredients come together over the course of 11 tracks to make Turn on the Bright Lights a truly spellbinding album. By the time things come to a slow-burning close with the haunting “Leif Erikson,” if you find yourself wandering city streets at night with a smoldering cigarette wedged into the head of your guitar, the album has done its work properly.