There is a Bright Light that never goes out...
Fifteen years later, that hi-hat still gives me chills. You know the one, or you probably do if you're a fan of Interpol's Turn On The Bright Lights. It's the one that happens about 35 seconds into "Untitled", the album's lead track - a cavernous, repetitive guitar line opens the song and then Sam Fogarino's hi-hat drops (ch-kuh-tss-TSSS!) and the rhythm section takes the song over. In 2002 there was nothing that sounded like this. There was nothing so darkly exhilarating, nothing so theatrical, nothing so meticulously and purposefully bewildering while also being easy to enjoy in a dynamic high's-and-low's sense. Even though Interpol's home turf of New York was the epicenter of a brand new tsunami of young bands about to storm the bedrooms of every rock-loving teenager in the country, no one was doing it like this - while The Strokes were content to ape a garage-y Velvet vibe and the Yeah Yeah Yeah's were coasting on a Blondie-style fusion of punk and disco, Interpol was repurposing the razor-black metallic riffs of Television and the post-punk tempos of Joy Division into something undeniably new and rollicking.
How could it be then, that the perfect set of musicians in an amazing band made exactly the right album…at exactly the wrong time?
Let me start by saying that for me, TOTBL is in the pantheon of great albums. I regard it as probably the best album released between 2000 and 2005, which I will admit is a judgement more emotional than academic. On any given day, it's going to be in my (theoretical and never fully compiled) "Top 10" list of all time. Many of those days, it would even fall into my "Top 5". And the majority of public opinion is totally with me on this (for once). On Metacritic, a popular critical aggregator, TOTBL is indisputably a high-scoring work with an 81/100 average on 21 critics and a 9.1/10 on the less-scientific User Score calculator (which is no mean feat at a whopping 321 user reviews). Critics and fans almost universally love this record. And it's well-deserved: the production is fantastic, the aesthetic is fully realized and coherent, the playing is brilliant (especially Fogarino's percussion and Carlos Dengler's beast-mode performance on bass), and it's all held together by Paul Banks' eerily haunting and faintly absurdist vocal and lyrical showing, all of which makes for some pretty iconic songs. [For obviously Re-Critical reasons, I'm going to leave off here on talking more about the construction of the songs and music in order to address my question above. But if you haven't heard this album all the way through, please go do that and then come back.]
In a few very legitimate ways, 2002 was a great time to put out this record. Everything seemed up-for-grabs when it came to reviving musical tropes from the past. In addition to the acts listed above, we had the White Stripes and the Black Keys gaining a lot of national traction by stripping the gloss away from rock-n-roll and giving way to a primal Blues caterwaul. Queens of the Stone Age had crafted a hit by beefing up 70's A.M.-rock and glam with desert-metal underpinnings and substance-abuse. Bright Eyes had recorded a rustic and homey folk masterwork that would become a touchstone for a new and less-abrasive form of emo. It only follows that a re-upping of the early 80's best post-punk would be welcome in this climate. And it was - as stated, people love this album. It is one of the few things about Interpol that is widely agreed-upon.
There are even reasons to think that the attempt to reanimate post-punk was successful in a broader scope when witnessing the efforts of other bands. UK's Bloc Party, fellow New Yorkers The Rapture, Pretty Girls Make Graves, The Killers, and several other bands all did well in and around this time, each of them keying in on finer points of the post-punk or New Wave genres. Not to mention that after the successes of these bands and others (including Interpol), it was hard to swing a dead Casio without hitting a band who had (whether they copped to it or not) been signed on the basis of their material resemblance to these bands (see: The Bravery, Editors, She Wants Revenge, White Lies, etc.). I am not at all saying that all of these bands are undeserving of their notoriety, I like many of them. My only point is that in a timeline where TOTBL doesn't happen, the likelihood of these bands making records (even existing?) dwindles down in percentage to somewhere in-between "Bear becomes head of Catholic church" and "Pope shits in the woods".
Now, I've asserted that this was the right album at the wrong time. So far I have not made a case, but it's been a nice trip down memory lane, right? Let's get into it.
Interpol was more of a workmanlike band than many others who were blowing up at the time. They didn't have the oblivious charisma of Karen O at their disposal, or the pretty-boy looks of Fab Moretti contrasting with the DGAF-ness of Julian Casablancas. They focused on cultivating an aura of something vaguely unsettling and uncanny while still being enjoyable. This is a pretty heady endeavor and not something many could pull off, let's face it. Jack and Meg White had mystique, but it was more tongue-in-cheek with regard to their relationship - they were the indie rock equivalent of Ross and Rachel. The Killers had the cult of personality that was (and still is) Brandon Flowers, the type of performer that commands stages and cameras even when recordings don't always measure up - 21st Century America had learned from 90's-era Pop how to be kind to such superficial gobsmackery.
With all this happening in the background and the Internet officially arriving to ravage the listening/watching habits of everyone all at once, Interpol's focus on songcraft and the post-punk ideal of smoke-filled-room obfuscation didn't serve them as well as it might have at another time. Without a frontman who begged for idolization, many casual music fans forgot about them or got their celeb-worship fix with another band who was more comfortable with that type of obviousness. In the absence of a quirky backstory to get hyped about, many of the tastemakers filled their need for drama by following Ryan Adams' always-colorful interviews or Blur's intra-band tensions instead. The substance was clearly there in spades, but it couldn't make up for an image gap in a newly hyperbolized cultural milieu.
And all of this might not have mattered, if not for their need to not retread the same musical ground. Perhaps the most damning thing for Interpol was their insistence on not creating another version of TOTBL. Given that the music was all they had to go on, it turned out fans weren't really as interested in the band when they began to diverge from the formula of LP1 - other albums included more muscular guitars, less focus on front-and-center basslines, song structures began to change shape and become more cerebral, synthesizers became more prominent. I personally believe that a blatant rip-off of Bright Lights would have been its own double-edged sword for both band and audience, but let's leave it at this: the audience seemed to want something that was less a spiritual successor and more of a formal one, and this turned out to be true from the release of second LP Antics onward.
Interpol's dedication to who they were musically would not allow that, however. And in an era where everything was truly becoming everywhere in a way that could only be described as "all the time", fans didn't have to look very hard to find a reasonable facsimile. Collectively, audiences have had mixed emotions about the band since, with as many decrying their inability to suitably follow up Lights as there are decrying their perceived unwillingness to break intrepid new ground. In a very real way Interpol is both in front of the barrel and behind the trigger, damned when they do and damned when they don't - even though they continue to put out very solid records, 2014's El Pintor is a latter-career high-watermark if not a full return to the post-punk wheelhouse.
Now, my goal here is not to tarnish anything. Don't go @-ing me on social media talking about how I'm some kind of hater, OK? My criticism here is not of a band, or of an album (which I love, as noted), but more a criticism of a time in music when we (as listeners) didn't know how vapid we were being, and how much great stuff was being thrown at us every year - and how much of it we were not giving its full due. In the wild abandon of the early-aughts, I imagine we thought that interconnectivity was making it possible to fall in love with a new band every week and never get tired of trying to keep them straight. The intervening years have seen a course correction, to be sure. Many of us are still voracious on that front, but we are more apt to be selective in whence and how much we consume. We recognize now that music is not an all-you-can-eat buffet, but a steady diet of healthy meals to be rationed over a lifetime. My argument is that for a brief moment, we didn't have that wherewithal, and TOTBL was victimized.
The beauty of music, and all art, is that none of this stops Turn On The Bright Lights from being a towering, classic achievement. As much as I love re-evaluating my own feelings about art as the years go on, and as much as I try to diagram a societal narrative arc about it (whether one exists or not), nothing changes the fact that "The New" contains one of the most awe-inspiring bridges in modern music with a shift so hard from first- to fourth-gear that it leaves my face numb; nothing keeps "Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down" from being my favorite paranoid fantasy ever set to music (and it has a killer fucking title); and there is no known mathematical limit to the number of times that "Untitled"'s opening hi-hat will give me absolute chills.