Weekend Listening: “Turn On the Bright Lights” by Interpol
Album: Turn On the Bright Lights by Interpol
Released: August 2002 on Matador Records
Recommended if you like: Joy Division, since they’re always getting compared to those dudes
Notable Tracks: “NYC,” “Obstacle 1,” “PDA,” “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down”
I wasn’t allowed to attempt Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” until I was fifteen years old. At twelve, I asked my teacher, Mrs. McKemie, if I could work on this piece, and she denied me. You are not old enough, she fruitlessly explained. Wasn’t piano about skill, about dexterity, sight-reading and confidence? I had that. I had been working for years with my tiny fingers stretching to cover a whole octave and I had the dedication to practice at least an hour each day. Late at night, listening to a four-disc compilation of the most random classical pieces that I had saved my allowance for weeks to buy, I would play this piece over and over in the dark. Quietly dreaming, lying on the floor one ear close to the speakers and my window open, AC vent shut to let in the humid Alabama night, tumbling down the undulating waves, imagining my fingers creating that haunting sound. Even though I had taken lessons, then, for five years and was reasonably good, she wouldn’t allow me to begin until I was fifteen, almost sixteen, and my heart had been broken for the first time.
Playing a technically correct version of this song, with fingers positioned perfectly over the five flats that come with Db major, never missing a note even in the trills, would be its death. With a piece this intricate, the left hand comprising the bass harmony to the more minimal treble melody, one’s fingering is certainly important, but played as is, the piece falls flat. The beauty here lies within the many half beat hesitations that should come as the treble hand follows the bass. In the middle section of the piece, when the left hand moves into an arpeggio figure, the treble hand plays the highlights over the rippling of the left, and hitting those notes exactly in sync with the bass would obfuscate the point of the piece. The color of the moonlight, the violet beauty that coats things in the night and turns them from ordinary to extravagant, mundane to lovely, lives inside the hesitation. Take that away, be too young and inexperienced to understand that holding back takes not timidity but self-awareness, and you aren’t creating the same piece.
Holding back, playing what is needed and not overshadowing, underlines Interpol’s 2002 debut full-length album Turn On the Bright Lights. Contemporary reviews to the album release talk about the beautiful depiction of angst, how lovely the sound of emotional turmoil, and of course I have to agree. Lyrically, the suit-clad dudes from Interpol focus on an awareness of where one is lacking, of depression situational to relationships, of a disaffect with fame and a weariness of self. “I know you’ve supported me for a long time / somehow I’m not impressed” from “NYC,” easily one of the more vivid tracks from the album, cuts through the band’s appreciation for the town that shot them to a national awareness, but functions equally well to serve as a disconnect inside a romantic relationship, the likes of which is found in the subsequent track, “PDA.” On all fronts, this album deals with dissatisfaction, primarily in the way one works inside these types of fundamental relationships like work and love.
Though a thematic strain like that could, and totally has, lend itself to a more self-serving musical sound (like emo), with Bright Lights instead we get a consistent choppy guitar and malleable percussion. “Obstacle 1,” perhaps the most driving and popular track, puts all the best elements of the album at the forefront. A simple guitar riff, backed by drums that pull back in the middle of the chorus, lay on top of a bass line that isn’t necessarily complex, but is at least hyperactive. An anger that fades out through subsequent tracks forms lines like “You go stabbing yourself in the neck,” loudly delivered in Paul Banks’s typically flat vocals. After the second chorus, the song opens up into a pointed guitar that makes sense despite a busy drum line because of the pullback earlier.
That same type of weirdly chill solo occurs in several other tracks, notably in “PDA.” Almost 20 seconds of the lead guitar playing eighth notes while the backing guitar riffing out on the melody could so easily sound robotic, but throughout Interpol manages a balance of weight for the instruments so that solo makes even more sense when the bass joins and, a beat later, the drums. They take it a step further in “Stella,” in the moments during the verses where everything builds up to a single hit on the high hat, this delicious ping in the midst of throbbing drums and that choppy guitar. After all this build up, the fall out in this song comes down more gently than expected, the fervor created earlier in the album come into acceptance, the guitar blaring out like an alarm softened by a soothing, soft keyboard. It’s their willingness to land without a crash that makes this track so self-aware and relatable.
Restraint, if you can swing it, is a beautiful thing. Watching a good friend commit what she will later rewrite as a mistake; refreshing a blank phone screen to make certain of your lover’s continued silence; seeing that man’s bedroom, hot tangled sheets and one of reprieve, of forgetting, written all over the smile he flashes across the bar at you…not holding her back, not calling to confirm someone doesn’t want to talk, not forcing yourself into a walk home filled with weary self-condemnation takes more than willpower. The art of holding back has been drowned in a sea of reality shows that laud screaming fits of blame and resentment, has been smothered by the thousands of votes cast to support a candidate standing on a platform of base emotion and petty, willful ignorance. Standing down when standing up wouldn’t be productive requires a greater strength than speaking out. Playing a scrubby guitar line so the bass shines through, not beating the fuck out of the drums even though your arms were created just for that, walking through a million ways to say I love you but never sending them to the person who’s choosing to stay away…sometimes the most beautiful harmony forms in repeating a bar of eighth notes for three minutes of supporting another instrument or in keeping the words from tumbling from your mouth since you know they would fall on uncaring ears.