You can never go back. No matter how much we might want to hop in a time machine and return to the best moments of our lives, such talk is impossible. Even if it were possible, would we really want to? All too often when we try to relive the best moments of our lives they end up not meeting our expectations. Those glorious memories we have established in our heads are often partly fiction anyways, covering everything in a dream-like haze that releases endorphins in our brains and we register the purest of pleasures. Undoubtedly then, many people have fond memories associated with Interpol’s debut album “Turn on the Bright Lights”. It was one of those revolutionary records from the last decade, instantly grabbing people’s attention upon release and securing itself a place in rock history as one of the ten best albums of the 00s (according to many including myself). That and the band’s sophmore album “Antics” turned Interpol from Joy Division imitators to contemporary and original rock stars of their own. After two similar-sounding records though, the band looked to mix things up a bit for their third album “Our Love to Admire”, which was given a chilly response from critics and fans alike. Interpol signed to major Capitol Records for that 2007 album and with the diversion from their standard sound along with the extreme polish put on the songs, one couldn’t blame fans for feeling as if they’d been betrayed. It’s been 3 years and you’ll be surprised to learn that times have changed. During that period there were solo albums and side projects. Interpol as a band left Capitol Records and returned home to Matador. They announced their fourth album would be self-titled and have been claiming it sounds like their earlier stuff. It was also revealed bassist Carlos Dengler quit the band after the latest recording sessions. Outside of that Carlos D thing though, all indicators are that Interpol are looking for a “return to form” with the new record, which coincidentally is out this week. But as we’ve already established, no matter how hard you try to go back, things are never the same as they were before.
Whether or not Interpol want to acknowledge that going back to 8 years ago is an impossible task, they sure as hell are going to try their hardest to get there. The opening track on “Interpol” is “Success”, but amusingly enough the band doesn’t seem to have that much of it going for them at the very start. The song is good, but compared to the band’s gripping openers in the past, from “Untitled” to “Next Exit” and even “Pioneer to the Falls”, “Success” doesn’t fully succeed. It has the sound and feel of something off “Antics”, but one of the lesser, deeper cuts. “Memory Serves” does well for itself with a memorable hook, but it does plod along just a little bit, lacking the vigor of some of the band’s best singles.”Summer Well” brings up the tempo and adds piano to good effect with yet another solidly captivating chorus. It may not quite reach the levels of “classic” Interpol. but it is a cut above the band’s most recent material. Undoubtedly though, the song “Lights” will make its way onto Interpol’s inevitable greatest hits record. That’s not just because it’s the first single off this self-titled album, but it also happens to be the best song the band has made since “Turn on the Bright Lights”. The slow-burning, 5.5 minute track accumulates tension and noise until it’s almost completely succumbed by it before abruptly ending. Following that with the energized second single of the “Obstacle 1”-esque “Barricade” is not only right but it makes for a 1-2 punch that’s dizzyingly great to listen to. So after a slower start, by a couple tracks in the band really seems to be making good on their promise to take things back to their early days. Then, as if drunk on their own power, they completely fall off the wagon.
That there’s a problem isn’t immediately apparent when “Always Malaise (The Man I Am)” starts off. Drummer Sam Fogarino plays a big role in keeping the song from completely descending into mediocrity while the piano is also a nice touch. The song goes for the careful and tense build-up but fails to gather any real excitement or memorability along the way. For a song like “Safe Without”, things get off to a promising start but then fail to move anywhere. It’s like taking a plane ride, thrilling at the takeoff but once you’re up in the air the plane just circles in a holding pattern because there’s nowhere to land. After that, the final three tracks descend into outright experimentation. “Try It On” implements a clunky and offbeat piano line at the beginning and then blippy synths towards the end to try and get a little more artsy and diverse. It’s perhaps most reminiscent of something singer Paul Banks’ somewhat bland side project Julian Plenti would do, and the result is about the same here. The song then bleeds into the 5 minute “All of the Ways”, a track that’s pure mood and atmosphere while seeming to skip everything else such as a compelling reason to keep listening. For the record though, this is something of a concept album attempting to chronicle the destruction of a relationship. That things get so desperately slow and depressing towards the end is certainly purposeful in keeping the theme going, but it’s at the cost of hooks and melodies that engage the listener. If “All of the Ways” isn’t enough of a death march for you, “The Undoing” closes out this self-titled effort by continuing to hold the the slow motion depression in check, this time adding strings and horns and for no apparent reason a few lyrics in Spanish. The song oozes with desperation as Banks repeats the word “please” a whole bunch of times, practically begging to be put out of his misery. The song fades into oblivion and it feels like sweet relief more than anything else.
What “Interpol” the album ultimately comes off as is a career retrospective for the band. The first half wraps the style and substance of their first two records into a nice neat package that’s very good but not quite as great as the original source material. The second half sees the band indulging their more experimental impulses that were so derided on 2007’s “Our Love to Admire”. Given how people reacted back then, three years later that blemish still hurts just a little bit and this is like reopening old wounds. There’s little to nothing to hold your interest on that second half of the album save for a sustained dark mood and a variance in style from what has previously defined Interpol’s sound. To the extent those things are what you want from the band, well, they’re clearly aiming to please. For everyone else, this is half of a great album and half of a simply okay one. Lightening up just a touch, there’s little to nothing on this record that’s outright bad, just compared to “Turn on the Bright Lights” and “Antics” there aren’t a flurry of highlights (see: singles). Instead there are just a couple of standout moments that serve just well enough to elevate this album above the last one. There will be those arguing that Interpol has always been a band making mood music rather than songs with big choruses and an urgent pace, but the truth is they’ve been responsible for both. For every “PDA” there is a “The New”, the difference now is that those longer, more plodding songs are equipped with less dynamic twists and more static straightaways. It’s admirable that Interpol are continuing to show some ambition and are looking to reach beyond the same old songs they’ve done before, the issue is that they’ve not yet found the sound that’s going to truly take them to the next level. Parts of “Interpol” give you tinkering but it’s really a lot of fumbling around in the dark looking for a lost contact lens. Where the band will choose to go next remains a mystery, but perhaps with bassist Carlos D now out of the picture it will lead to new and exciting sounds from them once again. There’s plenty of doubt to go along with that statement, but if any band can benefit from it, Interpol can.