Rediscovering Interpol’s 2002 debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, is a stark reminder of the band’s disappointing trajectory over the past 10 years. Interpol started out as one of the more unique bands to come out of the Y2K post-punk revival. Unlike the affected Strokes or the glossed-up Killers, these four thin Manhattanites took a sober, workmanlike approach to rock, pairing their black-and-crimson business-casual attire with churning guitars, surreal lyricism, and bleak urban imagery. Yet as soon as Interpol met stardom, they slowly, almost methodically, trailed off into hookless mediocrity, first with the uneven Antics and then with the B-side depositories that were Our Love to Admire and Interpol. The roiling pathos that seemed to drive the band has long dissipated, leaving behind little more than an empty pastiche of INC vests, shiny aviators, and decorative holsters.
Yet despite the slow fade, Turn on the Bright Lights continues to evoke the once-invigorating aspects of Interpol’s darkly stylish sound. The band’s winning formula was pairing Joy Division’s gothic, staccato-laced melodies with elements all their own: Carlos D’s elastic basslines; vocalist Paul Banks’s deadpan, near-sarcastic diary of lonerism; and a good dose of chasmal reverb that looms large like the gray skyscrapers of their native New York. Imagery of the Big Apple riddles Interpol’s work, with the cynical conclusions of songs like “NYC” (“The subway, she is a porno/The pavements, they are a mess”) and “Obstacle 2” (“I’ll stand by all this drinking if it helps me through these days”) reflecting the city’s post-9/11 haze of uncertainty. The band’s peeling guitar lines—a sound so expressive and sonorous that younger acts like the xx have incorporated it into their very own identities with little, if any, modification—adds to the grim sensuality.
Interpol’s strengths are crystallized in the slithery, double entendre-stuffed missive “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down,” where the band’s smoky, colorless urban purgatory becomes fully inhabitable, resulting in what is the most nuanced, resonant, and accomplished six minutes of their entire catalogue. At the center of it all is another one of Banks’s manic-depressive muses, a woman who intrigues just as much as she disturbs. “She knows there’s people watching,” he sings. “The building fronts are just fronts to hide the people watching her.”
In addition to the now-remastered original album, the new 10th anniversary edition of Turn on the Bright Lights includes a disc’s worth of rough cuts and unreleased material. The extras provide an interesting snapshot of a band that wasn’t always so confident in its cavernous sound, particularly in the demo sessions of “PDA,” “Roland,” and Antics standout “A Time to Be So Small,” where Banks’s typically ambiguous asides lack their usual half-sincere, half-mocking deadpan poise: “When the cadaverous mobs save their doors for the dead men, you cannot leave.”
The fact that there’s such a huge gulf between the unfinished material and the final product simply adds to the triumph of Interpol’s debut, as the band closed the gap rather convincingly from their early, roughly strewn gloom-pop to something far more dynamic, powerful, and meaningful. Likewise, that quick evolution makes the band’s ensuing stagnation all the more disconcerting: For a group that found itself so quickly and confidently, it’s a wonder why, after three middling albums, they can’t quite seem to right the ship. Turn on the Bright Lights is the work of young innovators who not only hit sonic paydirt on their first try, but crafted one of the finest rock albums of the young millennium.