9 September 2014 (Matador Records)
By Josh Hughes
For obvious reasons, I was at first pretty hesitant to listen to Interpol’s fifth LP. First, there was that last album, that mess of black tinted one-liner cuts that got monotonous even for an Interpol album. Then the typically black and red cover art for an album called El Pintor, all self serious in its capital letters, and finally, the loss of bassist Carlos Dengler. The heyday of modern rock’s poster child was inevitably deteriorating from the new wave of acts like Tame Impala, Cloud Nothings, and alt-J. In essence, I’d written El Pintor off before I’d heard a note of it. But as far as surprises go, Interpol delivers one of the weirdly great albums of 2014.
For all its mythology and untouchable status, debut Turn On The Bright Lights hit home in its post-911 reality; a New York band putting its heart on its sleeve through Paul Banks’ disconnected emotion. It’s a great album of homages to post-punk and angular rock that mostly feels like a really good Joy Division cover band. “Obstacle 1” is one of the most iconic ‘indie’ songs of all time, and the whole record’s legacy spent some 10 years haunting the band. For all their attempts at reviving that success, they’ve never strayed far from their original sound. You could chart their entire catalogue on a mostly uniform line, a sturdy line only with a couple deviations. But that’s always been the appeal to Interpol, I mean- it’d be weird if they went all Arcade Fire on us and dropped a disco infused double album.
So then enter El Pintor into the equation. Rendered a trio, Banks does a fine job keeping up four string duties while two tracks of guitar chop in and out of every track. Essentially, the music isn’t much different. But where their self titled LP drooled all over the place recycling motifs and adding piano, this time the weight of their first few albums is shrugged to the side for forty minutes. Opening song “All The Rage Back Home” is centered on a groovy guitar line over Banks’ “he said/she said” lyrics, verging on a menacing surf rock track by its end. Post-”Antics” Interpol seemed either scared (“The Heimlich Maneuver”) or unable (“Barricade”) to write something as strictly catchy as this, but it’s a welcome return. The revitalized energy is just as present on the album centerpiece “Same Town, New Story”, which pairs descending augmented chords with a repetitive guitar line. Nothing after the first track holds your ears so quickly, but the best songs are hidden deep in the album’s middle half. Pitchfork described El Pintor’s best tracks as being able to hang with the band’s best deep cuts, which is true; though an album of deep cuts isn’t by any means a bad thing.
Interpol always revolved around a single thread of an idea, but it’s cohesiveness even lacked gusto on TOTBL. For all their clever songwriting (save the lyrics- but that’s never been a high point for them), Interpol sounds like a massive, square, concrete slab with intricate patterning covered up by cloth for a Christo piece. It takes restraint to not let “My Desire” rip into a full blown anthem by its third minute. It’s more important that “Twice as Hard” is seamlessly in five/four than it is that “Everything Is Wrong” sounds a little bit like “Rest My Chemistry”. For all its dreary glory, it’s the first time that we can appreciate the translucently grey slab for what it is without frustration (maybe it’s also because the wind let’s us see more than we usually do). While there is an unarguable darkness to the album, it’s lifted up by a majestic presence.
“My Desire” gloriously riffs off “Afraid Of Everyone” and shallowly dips into pretty falsetto to craft the highlight of the album. The linearity fluctuates a little more with each chorus, but it’s a sturdy song more about atmosphere than progression. “Anywhere” builds off FIOE-era Strokes for a more classic Interpol cut. For all the menace and atmosphere on the album, it’s masqueraded behind a suit, drawing parallels with Don Draper, a Sofia Coppola movie, and any number of Bond villains in one breath.
The weaker points of the album fall to paint-by-numbers tracks like “My Blue Supreme” and the we’ve-heard-this-a-thousand-times “Ancient Ways”. Nothing is particularly wrong with the songs, but they fall too close to the bland side of the album’s drearily mesmerizing appeal. Every track incorporates every aspect of their sound right off the bat, not leaving room for any slow burners like “Hands Away” or the only highlight off their self-titled, “Lights”. But once again, it fits in line with the album’s idea of uniformity. However, quieter moments always oddly seem to be Interpol’s strong suit.
For El Pintor’s weak points, it proves an interesting study on the relevance of rock, however decayed it may be. It’s not a cheery album by any means, but it’s the most an Interpol album has yet to impact me. Though I’m about half a generation removed from 911’s visceral impact so that my say on TOTBL isn’t fully contextualized, El Pintor reminds me of those haunting half memories from exactly 13 years ago. It’s not as strong of an album, but it’s sturdy, and under different context, could’ve held the nostalgic terror and weight of a non-generational bound tragedy.
Rating: Liked It
Fav Tracks: “All The Rage Back Home”, “My Desire”, “Everything Is Wrong”