Interpol: Self-Titled Album Review

Revisiting the Album on its 10th Anniversary

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Photo Credit: MATADOR • 2010

Released on September 7, 2010, Interpol became a turning point for the band. It was the last album they recorded with bassist and keyboardist Carlos Dengler. The bassist played an integral part in shaping the band’s sound, so his departure felt like the end of a chapter in their career. The tension-filled recording sessions led to Dengler, leaving as soon as he finished recording his parts. The resulting album received a mixed reception from critics and fans. Pitchfork described it as,

“bereft of hooks, choruses, and other elements that make listening to music enjoyable.”

But did it really deserve all that hate? Let’s take a look back. In music, especially the world of indie rock, there has always been arbitrary importance on coolness. What is or isn’t cool? What music is cool to like? When Interpol released their classic debut album, Turn on the Bright Lights, in 2002, they were the epitome of New York City cool.

In 2002, not liking Interpol was almost the equivalent of branding yourself, uncool. But a lot of things changed in eight years. 2010 was not 2002. Liking Interpol was no longer a badge proving your coolness. That’s not to say that Interpol received negative reviews simply because it was not cool to like them. But it’s not unreasonable to think that at least some of the animosity the album received was because it had become fashionable to dump on the band.

The fact is that albums often come loaded with baggage that can heavily impact its reception. Sometimes these factors become the focal point of reviews, and it seems like the music itself takes a backseat. The band’s situation is one of the factors that impact how a new album is received. And in 2010, Interpol was a mess. After their first two albums, Interpol made the jump to the big leagues by signing to Capitol Records.

The resulting album, Our Love to Admire, released in 2007, was not the commercial leap one would expect when an indie band moves to a major label. After that album failed to grow their fanbase or impress critics, Interpol returned to their previous label, Matador. They chose to end their relationship with Capitol, but many people still saw it as a demotion. And perception can become reality. They were no longer the indie darling band people wanted to root for. And three years later, when they returned with their self-titled album, there was a sense that their moment had passed, and many people wanted to see them fail.

Paul Banks described the recording process for Interpol as “hard and unpleasant to make.” And these tensions were well-publicized. The bassist’s departure became public news months before the album hit store shelves. Many looked forward to the album with a sort of morbid curiosity, expecting or even hoping for a disaster. And when the album finally arrived, people were ready to label it a failure.

But now, on its 10th anniversary, it seems like the perfect time to revisit the album. Since those external influences no longer matter, perhaps it’ll be possible to review it more objectively than it was done at the time of its release. And we can see if it deserves its reputation.

The album kicks off in a melancholy and familiar fashion, with Success, one of the most recognizably “Interpol” songs. It sets the album’s mood, and it also serves as a mission statement of sorts. Interpol has never been known as a sunny band, but this album wastes no time establishing that all is not well for these guys. But what’s striking about the song is its vulnerability; as Paul Banks sings, “I’m a good guy,” it doesn’t feel like a declaration. It sounds more like he’s trying to convince himself. You get the sense that he really wants to be a good guy but perhaps doesn’t even remember how.

At the outset, the band sounds exhausted, and it forces you to look at the song title in a new light as if it should be said with a sneer. They’ve achieved success only to realize it was a hollow victory. It’s not a killer way to kick off an album, but it’s honest, and it’s an honesty that permeates throughout even if it isn’t always flattering.

Interpol has always been great at painting pictures with their songs, grounding them with a simple phrase. Whether they were offering you “two hundred couches, where you can sleep tight,” or telling you that “we ain’t going to the town, we’re going to the city,” the songs always have a sense of space. And this album seems to exist in the dreaded morning after; when the consequences of last night’s actions come bearing down. All the things you convinced yourself you could ignore come into sharp relief, and as you stare at yourself in the mirror, you decide that maybe you don’t like what you’re seeing.

A lot of the lyrics deal with Paul Banks’ disillusionment with the man he’s become and the path he’s put himself on. If being in a successful band turns you into someone you don’t like, is it a success worth having? It feels like the band is becoming fully aware of what their success has set in motion. They see the strings, pulling and guiding them along and wonder if they still want to go for the ride or if there is even a way out.

It’s not an easy or even inviting album, filled with radio-ready singles like their past projects. But it is a rewarding listen all the same. The songs practically demand multiple listens to really “click.”

Sometimes it can be hard to tell where one song ends, and the next one begins. They seamlessly transition into each other, making it clear this album should be experienced as a whole rather than in pieces. However, bands always take a risk when they put out an album that demands to be listened in its entirety to be fully enjoyed. This was true even in 2010, but impossible to ignore in 2020. And that could be where Interpol lost a lot of listeners.

But even for such a cohesive album, it still offers some highlights. Barricade is the song that stands out the most from the rest of the album. It feels like a blatant attempt at having a hit single. But when the song is this good, who can be mad at them? The fact that Barricade didn’t catch on should be the clearest indicator that Interpol never got a fair chance. Radio stations or music video channels weren’t interested in devoting airplay to the band. It doesn’t matter how good a single is if people can’t hear it.

Lights feels like the purest distillation of the band’s formula. It’s a beautiful, moody song that only Interpol could have made. There’s a reason why it’s the only song from this album that still regularly appears on concert setlists. And the album goes out on a genuinely high note with The Undoing, a song that deserves a place among the band’s best.

With Interpol, the band cast their well-developed formula in an intriguing and sometimes stunning new light. It’s actually kind of mind-boggling that this album is so poorly regarded. While it’s certainly not their best, Interpol is a great album that stands on its own and has genuinely beautiful songs that deserve to be heard.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to deny that it doesn’t immediately grab you. It requires a lot of patience from the listener. Even the best moments take time to reveal themselves. Most of the songs work best in the context of the entire album. Only a few really succeed on their own, and even those songs take a few listens to really grab you, except Barricade. That song’s killer drum intro grabs you in less than one second.

But this is the kind of album that if you haven’t listened to all the way through — preferably a few times — then you haven’t really heard it at all. It requires the listener to embark on a journey without making it clear why it’s worth taking.

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