Inarguable fact: Interpol had the indie-rock world by the short and curlies for a relatively long period of time. Three years to be exact, the time between their debut EP, 2002’s masterwork Turn on the Bright Lights, and 2004’s Antics. During that time, they were the coolest motherfuckers on this rock. Bassist Carlos D was a fashion “icon” who kept New York hipster gossip blogs in advertising dollars for a few years. Paul Banks bangs supermodels even today on account of those three years. Because of those three years, an army of people is trolling the Net right now looking for negative reviews of any of the material off Interpol’s awful self-titled fourth album in order to wage counter-programming. (“Yeah, their first album was good, but this one and Our Love to Admire feel more complete to me,” says my imaginary Internet troll.)
But 2004 might as well have been 20 years ago. First was that embarrassing Spin cover story about how they hate each other and jumped ship from Matador because selling just 500,000 copies of each of their albums wasn’t good enough because they needed to expand their brand. Which is crazy, because no one even sells 500,000 copies anymore. Then came Our Love to Admire, an OK album, if you’re willing to forgive the guys who maybe wrote last decade’s defining New York album (Turn on the Bright Light Lights) for having a song called “No I In Threesome.” Then was Paul Banks’ roundly mediocre solo album, and finally, Carlos D’s exit, over allegedly not wanting to tour behind this album.
And can you blame him? Would you want to hit the road behind the new low that is Interpol? An album chock full of “Obstacle 2” re-writes that’s devoid of anything memorable. An album that muddies up their former masterful command of their tight and angular sound. An album that makes putting an oboe on “Pioneer to the Falls” seem like the best things these guys have ever done. And damn if the band members basically tell you how this one would sound: There’s a song called “Always Malaise,” for god’s sake.
Interpol starts well enough. “Success” is one of the stronger tracks here, with the twisted guitar menace of Daniel Kessler and Banks forming a lot of negative space for the band’s unsung hero, drummer Sam Fogarino, to pepper in his syncopated drum fills. And the two singles, “Barricade” and “Lights,” aren’t as bad as the worst in the band’s discography, though “Barricade” maybe has the most awkward chorus of any rock single this year: “It starts to feel like a barricade to keep us away/ Keep us away and it kind of does.”
Then the album becomes an exercise in self-punishment, a slog of dwindling rewards when you can’t admit to yourself it’s gotten this bad. Each song is more tepid than the last, till you get to probably the worst Interpol song ever, “All of the Ways.” It sounds like an audio recording of Paul Banks moaning as he’s getting massaged while the band plays in a submarine in the Pacific Rim. Complaining about Banks as a lyricist/vocalist is a no-win game — he’s always been bad, he just got away with horrible lyrics when the songs were good — but his voice is a serious album-killer in this case. Compare his vocals on “NYC” to anything here and see the difference; where he used to use his one-note voice to get across his wish for something other than emotional vacuity, here he barks like a robot about someone’s summer break (“Summer Well”) and brays about the past (“Memory Serves”).
Banks will probably catch the most flak, as always, but his band isn’t making a strong case for its continued existence either. Where they used to sound like the crackling of a subway car rounding a bend or the seediest alleys of New York in the pre-dawn hours, here they sound like alt-rock renderings of what moody post-punk is supposed to sound like. Which is ironic, being that they got positioned as a major-label, radio-friendly alt-rock band last time out (“Heinrich Maneuver” was a modest hit) when they decided to blow their songs out with orchestras and string arrangements. Now they’re totally indie, distributing their stuff through Matador again, trying to recapture that old magic. Which in case you haven’t been paying attention, is long gone.