Tenth anniversary reissue of Interpol’s ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’ reminds us that youth is finite and death is inevitable
Matador is rereleasing ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’ on December 4th in the US. It might be hard to believe given the diminished returns of all subsequent Interpol releases, but back when “Turn On The Bright Lights” was released all the way back in 2002 it was heralded as something of a new Bible of Cool – a landmark of what we were told by music journalists was a “rock revival.” There was a brief yet fruitful time directly after 9/11 when New York bands like The Strokes (sure), the French Kicks (nope), and Interpol (kinda) were all poised to take over the world. A couple of them did, for a brief time. Others didn’t.
Ten years on The Strokes have become less downtown hipsters and more odd caricatures of rock stars. The White Stripes disbanded and Jack White became a cross between Eric Clapton and a muppet. The French Kicks never went anywhere, The Hives had three good songs, The Vines fucking blew, and Interpol released album after album of dark-sounding rock music that strayed further and further away from their fascinating debut. Later Interpol albums sound like an uncannily good Interpol cover band that ran out of material and started writing their own. That first album, though, “Turn On The Bright Lights,” still totally holds up.
I remember hearing about Interpol from a girl I had met at a show (the full story of which is available in my upcoming autobiography “I Was A Teenage Douchebag” available where all good books aren’t sold) – she had just come from seeing The D4, a band who, for all their good intentions, never took off – but she raved about this band called Interpol who “you really need to hear” because “it sounds like Joy Division but better.” Comparing Interpol to Joy Division is like comparing a gazebo to a the White House. But she had a point. The comparisons between Interpol and Joy Division were/are inevitable – monotonous vocals over a vaguely danceable rhythm section with some “angular” guitar work – but the difference was that you could play “PDA” at a party, or “Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down” on a mixtape and get away with it. Not everything had to come to the heroic levels of Joy Division. Interpol, at least on that first album (and a third of the second album) were perfect for the time, causing many young-uns to do some research and get into bands like Joy Division.
If Interpol had continued with the momentum they built off of their first album I have no doubt that they’d be a much bigger band than they are today. The disappointment of their 2005 follow up “Antics” was palpable. Released three years after “Turn On The Bright Lights”, “Antics” had a few good moments but was by and large retreading the same ground as the first album. They were bringing nothing new to the table other than another table; all subsequent Interpol offerings have also fallen victim to the same trap.
The funny thing is, though, that ten years on, “Turn On The Bright Lights” still sounds relevant, if not more relevant, than before. There’s a bite here, a languid sexuality, that still holds through. While Paul Banks’s lyrics still come off as ridiculous (“Her stories are boring and stuff / She’s always calling my bluff”) his delivery totally works: one part detached, the other part keening. It’s a formula that bands like The National have capitalized on better in recent years, some might say better than Interpol did, and there might be a kernel of truth there.
The Strokes formidable debut “Is This It?” and “Turn On The Bright Lights” marked the high-water point of the early 2000s “new rock” revival/movement, if you could call it that. Ten years on, the whole “rock revival” schtick was clearly the invention of a dying music journalism establishment trying desperately to cling to relevancy (remember the whole “nu-rave” thing in 2007? ugh) but there were a few great albums to come out of it. Most of these New York bands are back to bartending or, in one case, banging Mandy Moore and releasing Starbucks rock (sorry dude). Interpol are still around, still touring, yet never quite got a grip with what it was that made “Turn On The Bright Lights” such a great album. Perhaps its what happens to all good/great bands: you have your whole life to write that first album, and only eight months to write that second one.
“Turn On The Bright Lights” is the sound of a young band with confidence and swagger and perhaps its best that we remember them that way, with that stellar debut, an air of mystery, the cheekbones of Greek gods, and the wardrobe of an incredibly well dressed funeral procession. People, now, might try to write them (and this album) off, but my god, for a while, they were on top of the world.