Interpol - Interpol
It feels weird to be talking about Interpol in 2010. Hearing a new Interpol album just seems . . . quaint? . . . in a comparable fashion to, say, sitting down to read a new Rob Liefeld comic. For better or for worse, they're so strongly tied to a certain moment in time that the idea of them putting out new music in the here and now feels vaguely anachronistic. I always like to imagine that Interpol were one of the bands Sleater-Kinney had in mind back in 2005 when they wrote "Entertain" and dropped the hammer on all the retro-hipster scenester bands that defined "indie rock" in the early years of the decade. Sure, some of the music was OK, but given just how tumultuous the last decade was, the fact that so many otherwise talented bands retreated into anodyne nostalgia-mongering was disappointing - even if you could tap your toe to Is This It, it left you hungry afterwards, like a plate full of cancerous MSG. You can't tell me it holds up as well as you thought it would Back In The Day.
It's funny how our judgment becomes clouded by the passage of time - I seem to recall this kind of crap clogging up the whole of pop music for years, but a casual glance at Pitchfork's Top 50 for 2002, for example, proves that this just wasn't the case. There was lots of stuff released in those years that wasn't just skinny jeans & Television / white dress shirts & Joy Division. It just seems like that was the whole story, because that's all anybody ever talked about. And, wow, what the fuck was going on at Pitchfork that they put Yankee Hotel Foxtrot pole-position behind Turn On The Bright Lights? I understand the desire to take a stand against stifling rock critic groupthink - and, it's no secret, YHF was pretty much deified the moment it hit shelves, to say nothing about the long legendary months of record label turmoil that preceded its release. Wilco was never really as "cool" as they were "good," and even back in 2001 they were already suspiciously close to hoary "dad rock" for many peoples' comfort. Subsequent years have proven WIlco's early decade peak to be kind of a fluke, a once-in-a-career confluence of a drug-addicted, clinically depressed songwriter (Jeff Tweedy) finding a production voice (that of Jim O'Rourke) uniquely suited to grinding Tweedy's material into a diamond-hard edge. (Which isn't to say that anyone should resent Tweedy his hard-earned sobriety and domestic equanimity, but we can resent him making complacent-ass records of boring "dad rock" all day long.) But still: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? Still awesome, still played to death; Turn On The Bright Lights? Seriously, when was the last time you listened to it? Be honest with yourself: it's kind of dated.
And that isn't necessarily a bad thing. When Interpol debuted, they really were pretty impressive - sure, they were always more or less derivative, but they had the tunes to back it up. "PDA"? Still gets stuck in your head after all these years. Yeah, it sounds a lot like 2002, with all that implies - maybe what we really needed then was vaguely inconsequential Bauhaus riffs? The problem was that, if their first album was pretty much the epitome of what Interpol should sound like, where the hell could they go from there? Antics was, in some respects, as good a record as their debut, but it was basically just a further refinement of an already clearly defined aesthetic. There didn't seem to be any place to go - no room for improvement or even exploration. Their sound was always sterile - that was the point - but they didn't seem to be the kind of band that would ever be able to pull-off a convincing stylistic 180 or even just a 30. They were what they were, and what that was was black slacks, shiny patent leather shoes, crooning not-quite-Goth-more-like-Weimar Ian Curtis showtunes. It didn't seem likely that they would suddenly decamp to Woodstock and produce an acoustic country album or record a lo-fi garage project with Dave Fridmann, or any of the other typical left-turns rock stars take when they need to freshen up a stale bag of tricks.
Interpol was a very narrow box, and they pretty much shat all over the walls of this narrow box with Our Love To Admire. If you want an example of what happens to a decent band when they sign to a major label and lose their minds, this is Exhibit A: a soggy mess of meandering synth noises and echoey vocals that sounds . . . well, like shit, if you don't mind me going back to the fecal imagery so soon after the first sentence of this paragraph. It was just awful, so much so that the band itself eventually disowned it. I gave up on them at that moment. It was an album awful enough to make you retroactively rethink all their previous music that you had liked, or at least that you remembered liking at some indeterminate point before the bag of memories in your head entitled "Interpol" was burnt with fire.
So what are we doing here, then, bothering with a group about which we had once sworn never to bother with again? Well, a few months back I just happened to hear Turn On The Bright Lights in a record store. I hadn't heard the disc in years - at least three or four. And suddenly I remembered why I had once liked the band: the album sounded good. The hooks were sharp, the sound was clear, and even if it was derivative it was so perfectly conceived that you almost couldn't help but feel that they were making better use of those styles than the people from whom they bit. Let us make no mistake - a good Interpol song is essentially a trifle. Their métier is very limited, and their glowering, self-important attitude can seem relentlessly juvenile. But when they hit inside their range they can really satisfy. They at least know how to tell a joke, which is more than most gloomy bands can manage. (Hint: "Bela Lugosi's Dead" was always intended as a joke, people.)
So - self-titled fourth album, first after having to crawl back to their indie alma mater for forgiveness after being kicked off the corporate teat for - heh - sucking too hard. It's . . . not bad! It sounds pretty much like their third album never happened. That's a good thing for all concerned. If you never cared for them this album is not likely to change your mind, because it's basically still got everything you didn't like about them wrapped up in a nice black bow. But if you do like them, or if you did once like them and then got bored, this is actually a pretty decent comeback. Sometimes the best ambition a band can have is just to recapture the spark of what made them special in the first place. For that, this is Mission Accomplished.
How long they can continue into the future after having lost their bass player / resident fashion plate Carlos D is unknown. But then, Carlos D has been a mortifying hipster cliche for so long that it might even be good for them. In the meantime, we all eagerly await the D-Dawg's appearance on the next Methods of Mayhem album.