It’s 12 years now since Interpol’s first album, Turn on The Bright Lights. At the time there was something fresh in their retro vibe. As city-mates The Strokes ransacked CBGB’s proto punk for their sound, with undeniable aplomb, Interpol picked over the corpses of post punk, borrowing from the British canon. Many names were checked when one was talking about Interpol. Joy Division, The Psychedelic Furs, The Bunnymen. A rich, admirable seam to mine. But there was something bigger and grimier in the sound, less stark, less Northern England, more New York. It was a fine sound, propelled by Carlos D’s inventive two-fingered bass playing and Sam Fogerino’s drums – all atmosphere, with Paul Bank’s plaintive, down beat vocalising (more Sumner than Curtis), and wasn’t particularly busting with melody or tunes. And yet they were promoted from suit wearing club playing dirgists to suit wearing arena playing dirgests.
There was a sense that this was an over promotion, that Interpol didn’t have the anthemic arsenal to pull off being this huge. Alongside there was the self serving Editors, with their clear agenda, and The Killers, with their photogenic hit singles. It was an era of sexy teenage vampire emo dross and Interpol never looked at home in such exalted company. But they’ve endured, and now they’re back with their first album in four years and the first since Carlos D decided to call it a day.
‘All The Rage Back Home’ starts off in the established Interpol opening track way, with a guitar chiming high on the fretboard and Bank’s half an octave range voice, with the tight drums lifting it. Their trick has always being to create drama with the bass and drum dynamic, and they are well aware of this. Reminiscent of the Damned’s mid-period goth-pop, except with tongue rather firmly not in cheek, lacking that canny mischief that Vanian was so fond of.
‘My Desire’’s thumping thrum of a bassline inadvertently highlights that which is no longer present. Carlos D’s inventive, rhythmic precision is missed throughout. It was, after all, as defining to their sound as Bank’s vocals, and it is he who’s attempting to fill that rather gaping void. The opportunity to create a layer of intricate scaffolding to hold up an ordinary enough tune is missed, and you can almost hear the lines that aren’t being played.
‘Anywhere’ is an Interpol song. You couldn’t miss it. Again, it’s Fogarino’s drums that create all the motion. There’s also a delicious hanging halfbeat motif in My Blue Supreme. The song also features a subtler attack on the vocals, almost falsetto at times, and nearly approaches breakout territory, but not quite. From then on, nothing stands out until we get to ‘Tidal Wave’’s driven chorus, which sparkles with synths hitherto underused. It reeks of Arena-Band confidence. ‘Twice as Hard’ features another looming chorus and Bank’s attempt to create some interesting bass lines.
Interpol got where they are today by being Interpol, and they’re damned if they’re changing that. The fact that their sound is, at this stage, pretty unique (ignoring, if we will, the obvious historical tropes) is a double edged sword. At this stage, five albums and a dozen years into it, it’s time to wonder if the refusal to entertain change is some kind of trenchant obstinacy or a lack of ability. Maybe they genuinely can’t write music that doesn’t sound like all the other music they’ve done before. It’s evident that the break has done them good, there’s more vigour in this recording than in the last, self titled album from 2010, and one hopes in the future they find a bassist to match the imagination of the dearly departed D.
Overall, you can’t help but feel that on El Pintor, the very name just a reshuffling of what was already in place, Interpol have settled into a holding pattern, rather than using the break and Carlos’s exit as an opportunity to regroup, reassess and attack their music from a different angle. But then, that wouldn’t sound like Interpol. They’re probably quite happy where they are, but you’d never guess by listening to them.