Like many of their early aughts rock brethren, Interpol‘s career arc could be described as a sharp decline from a majestic peak. As with many things, the problem might have been timing . . . if you’re counting “instant success” a problem. Interpol’s debut album, Turn On the Bright Lights came out at just the right time (2002) from just the right city (New York) from just the right movement (the same brief rock renaissance that gave us bands like The Strokes, The Rapture, TV On the Radio, The Walkmen, and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, among others).
It also helped that Turn On the Bright Lights was just so damn good.
So what happened? Why has Interpol been relegated to the “has beens” category of rock? How could their fall have been so precipitous? I mean, 2004’s Antics was really good, most would agree. Not as good as Turn On the Bright Lights, but nothing could be.
And then, Interpol just got kind of . . . samey.
Our Love to Admire (2007), Interpol (2010), El Pintor (2014) . . . none of these were bad albums, and listening to them far removed from their original release dates reveals they’re actually much better than originally thought (particularly the self-titled fourth album, but we’ll get to that later).
When you get right down to it, Interpol were kind of a one-trick pony, and that trick has been repeated for six albums now. The thing was, though they only had one trick, they were so good at it.
Singer/guitarist Paul Banks, guitarist Daniel Kessler, drummer Sam Fogarino, and bassist/keyboardist Carlos Dengler created a moody, hedonistic, all-encompassing sound based on 1980s post-punk–obvious touchstones like Joy Division and The Cure come to mind. But they added layers of reverbed guitars with a delicate interplay that made it sound like one huge instrument surrounding your ears, Banks’s monotone speak-singing about late-night trysts in the city and the regret he felt about them, and volume. But what really stirred the mix was Interpol’s rhythm section: classic-rock vet Fogarino, nearly a decade older than the rest of the band, really gelled with Dengler and his powerful, melodic, and up-front bass playing to give Interpol a serious oomph many of their contemporaries lacked.
In short, they rocked and they swung. They had swag.
The funny thing was, Fogarino and Dengler never really got along, but they created some of the best bass-and-drum interplay of the last twenty years. Then Dengler left the band in 2010, after recording that fourth album, and Interpol has never been the same.
That’s actually a good thing. Sort of.
(Dengler is an interesting cat who walked away from the fame game to become an actor. I plan on writing more about him at a later date. Stay tuned.)
Without Dengler, that powerful bottom in Interpol’s music has been lacking. Banks has played bass on their last two albums, but he plays the instrument in a purely supportive role and not as a lead instrument, the way Denger did. So their music hasn’t been as dancey or as funky, but the songwriting has changed. A bit. And not always for the better. But sometimes.
This brings us to Marauder. If you’ve heard Interpol’s last three albums, you know what to expect: More of the same, but without the interesting basslines. The production on Marauders by Dave Fridmann recaptures some of the grit of Turn On the Bright Lights and eliminates some of Interpol’s clinical sterility–Fogarino’s hi-hats sound particularly in-your-face, and Kessler’s guitars pop in a way they haven’t for a while. Banks’s voice has gotten less interesting over the years, and holy cow he’s 40 now and I feel old. But the songwriting is different. And different is an improvement when it comes to latter-day Interpol.
All of this seems like an elaborate set-up for me to say I don’t like Marauders. But here’s the thing: I think this is one of Interpol’s stronger works. Opener “If You Really Love Nothing” kicks things off with a loping shuffle and some chiming guitars that oddly remind me of The Smiths as Banks sings, shockingly, about the emptiness of nihilism. First single “The Rover” is increasingly rare up-tempo Interpol, with driving bass and delay drenched arpeggio giving it a definite 80s feel. Kessler has a very distinctive guitar style that’s equal parts David Gilmour and Bernard Sumner, at least sonically speaking (no guitar solos here!).
In fact, the first half of the album sounds like a band reinvigorated, revising their songwriting formula to actually include (gasp) different parts! Interpol has sadly succumbed to one of my personal least favorite songwriting tactics: Play the same chord progression over and over while changing the lyrics only. I was in a band once that had this tendency. If you think it’s boring to listen to, try playing it.
And so Marauder comes to a lurching halt in the middle three songs, only picking up speed with the hard-charging “Number 10,” a song that makes me wonder why Interpol doesn’t play at this speed more. I think back to songs like “Say Hello to the Angels,” “PDA,” “Roland,” “The Heinrich Maneuver,” “Barricade,” and “All the Rage Back Home” and realize that they’re really good at it. Sure, they do moody well, but only when the songs are interesting and don’t rely on repetition.
Look, a band like Led Zeppelin could get away with really long, repetitive songs like “Kashmir,” “In My Time of Dying,” “Carouselambra,” “Achilles Last Stand,” “Trampled Under Foot,” and “When the Levee Breaks” because those songs rocked. When a band like Interpol tries to stretch a mood out for four or five minutes, it feels like a wash of grey where even good ideas can start to drag.
But it ends strong. “Party’s Over” embodies Internet-age regred, and I like the bluesy strut of closer “It Probably Matters.” Lyrically, the album is a very loose concept about a man and the titular Marauder, which is, according to banks, “the portion of your personality that isn’t really concerned with accountability and just kind of does.” Which kind of sounds like . . . Paul Banks. Still, the sense of regret and longing for something out of reach and inaccessible by putting chemicals in your system and seeking fleeting romantic affairs still speaks to that hedonistic part of all of us. “Stay In Touch,” in particular, is simultaneously poignant and repulsive: a man sleeps with an attached woman and later becomes good friends with her beau, realizes he’s a good guy, and feels regret while at the same time still kind of lusting after her. It’s . . . complicated and hardly new terrain for the band, but it works.
All in all, Marauder makes me glad Interpol are still around in 2018, putting out new albums and touring.
So what are Interpol at this point, anyway? Were they not as cool or as talented as we all thought they were when we were 21 and Turn On the Bright Lights made even college kids from New Hampshire long for the sexy, dangerous allure of the big city?
Interpol are survivors. They are musicians, and they are craftsmen trying to earn a living plying their trade in a world where rock music doesn’t really matter. For this, I salute them, and look forward to reviewing yet another Interpol album when Banks, Kessler, and I are all pushing 50.
If Fogarino is still playing drums by them. I mean, the dude is already 50.
The Verdict: Very okay! If you were a fan of Turn On the Bright Lights and have kind of written the band off since, you actually might like this one. It’s nowhere near as good as Turn On the Bright Lights, which is as close to a perfect album as one can get, but it’ll provide about 60% great stuff and 40% stuff that’ll wash over you on the way to the next good song. That sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, but Marauder‘s best songs could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of their best on some future greatest hits album. And that’s nothing to laugh at.
Listen: “The Rover”