Despite being Interpol’s debut album, Turn on the Bright Lights is universally acclaimed as their Magnum Opus. Led by charismatic frontman and guitarist Paul Banks, the band kickstarted the early 2000s post-punk revival, drawing as much from Joy Division as they did their New York contemporaries The Strokes.
Banks’ baritone singing and ice cool detachment have drawn many parallel’s with Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, though where the former often demonstrated the loss of control, Banks has a much more measured approach. This balance is expertly demonstrated in tracks ‘PDA’ and ‘Roland’, pulsing siren-like guitar lines drive ‘PDA’ forwards whilst Banks’ deadpan vocal delivery of morose nonchalance anchors the track, opening with the line “Yours is the only version of my desertion that I could ever subscribe to”. ‘Roland’ has a simmering sense of urgency without ever sounding frantic, due to Banks’ irreverent interjections. The song depicts the arrest of Banks’ friend, a butcher with psychopathic tendencies, but is kept away from overwhelmingly dark territory by spontaneous distractions “look it’s stopped snowing”, “my best friend’s from Poland, and, oh he has a beard”.
The album is superbly mixed, every component is easily discernible from even a casual listen. Crisp guitar riffs and basslines mixed ever so slightly louder than usual are par for the course, highlighting their importance. So important, in fact, that bassist Carlos Dengler jokingly suggested “Celebrated Basslines of the Future” as an album title.
When Banks’ vocals aren’t ebbing and flowing almost seamlessly from the instrumentals such as on album introduction ‘Untitled’, they seem to hover above the tracks independently. It’s clear that the band pored over every detail, ensuring that there is an extraordinary balance to the album. Each element sounds as if it has been precisely measured, from the overdrive effect utilised on the guitars to the amount of apathy on display in ‘NYC’.
Lyrically Turn on the Bright Lights ranges from despair to pithy witticisms at the drop of a hat. ‘Obstacle 1’ perfectly summarises Banks’ style, from the opening line “I wish I could eat the salt off of your last faded lips” to the crescendo “She puts the weights into my little heart” he deals in often abstract imagery and metaphors. At times the lyrics are incredibly personal, and others have an air of aloof superiority, though they always remain sincere.
The album climaxes with penultimate track ‘The New’, a six-minute eulogy to a failed relationship with a peaking instrumental break to mark the shift in the track’s nature from remorse to pleading, and a sprawling outro. Final song ‘Leif Erikson’ provides sombre respite, acting as the comedown after a bad night out, or reflection on a past love. The final note rings out for just a matter of seconds after the closing line “My love’s subliminal”, creating a perfect sense of completeness.
With Turn on the Bright Lights Interpol set an incredible benchmark in post-punk, breathing new life into the genre by recording an album that has yet to be surpassed.
Turn on the Bright Lights was released on 19th August 2002 on Matador Records.