“Still in shape, my methods refined,” sings Paul Banks on Toni, the opening track of Interpol’s seventh studio album. Banks is a lyric writer who, throughout his career, has tended to deal in allusion and opacity, the kind of imagery that sounds as though it means something, but can essentially be interpreted in any way the listener sees fit: “Draw me a million years and I’ll probably make them my home / eternity brought me tears, but it’s the cold I collect on my own,” he sings, characteristically, elsewhere on The Other Side of Make-Believe.
But, whether intended or not, that line from Toni feels like a neat summation of where the band he’s fronted since 1997 are, 25 years later. Interpol may well have been the archetypical early 00s New York alt-rock buzz band: derivative but stylish, bedevilled by excess, unable to translate the excitement generated by their early releases into the mainstream, household-name success won by less hip but more commercially driven contemporaries.
Twenty years on from the release of their debut album Turn on the Bright Lights, they seem to have settled more comfortably into cult-hood than some of their peers. The major label push they received around the time of 2007’s Our Love to Admire didn’t really suit them – attempting to refit their sound for a bigger audience in the company of Muse producer Rich Costey left their Joy Division/Chameleons-derived gloom-rock feeling blustery and hollow; the resulting album sold roughly half as much as its predecessor. Interpol clearly agreed with its commercial assessment: back to their former indie home they went, where they’ve been ever since, knocking out an album every four years, touring impressive-sized venues, playing the kind of sets in which audiences are guaranteed a hefty chunk of the albums that made them famous.
It’s an approach that speaks of qualities that weren’t readily associated with early 00s buzz bands of any kind, among them dedication, pragmatism and graft: still in shape, methods refined. There’s a similar methodology behind their albums: if Interpol were going to throw their fanbase a musical curveball, they would have done it by now. Instead, their more recent releases make restrained adjustments to the band’s monochromatic post-punk-inspired template. Sometimes, the results are really striking. 2018’s Marauder drafted in Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann, who whipped up a raw, live sound, everything deep-fried in distortion: you got the feeling that, had it been the debut album by a new band, it would have been the cause of widespread excitement.
The Other Side of Make-Believe takes the opposite tack. Written remotely during lockdown, with Interpol’s three members scattered across various countries, it feels noticeably softer, more measured and intimate than its predecessor: there’s nothing here as tumultuous as Marauder’s single The Rover. One effect of the change from their usual en-masse, rehearsal-room approach to songwriting is that Banks’ voice has shifted: once a stentorian bellow with its roots in the Ian Curtis of Digital or Shadowplay, it’s become something approaching a croon, albeit a crestfallen-sounding one. Another is a greater sense of space in the music, which makes the idiosyncrasies of guitarist Daniel Kessler and drummer Sam Fogarino’s styles more evident. The former applies his thin, vinegary tone to complex, cyclical riffs that frequently take on an addictive quality, as on the superb Fables. The latter is a genuinely inventive drummer – a rare thing in the world of indie rock – who, at his best, feels more interested in being a disruptive force than performing the standard glue role: on Into the Night, the strange accents of his playing lend the song an appealingly unsettled, slippery quality.
More unexpected is the album’s emotional tone – there are flickers of light among the usual foggy gloom. The chorus of Renegade Hearts boasts an understated but effectively uplifting melody; there’s a similarly subtle, but nonetheless identifiable, breeziness about Gran Hotel, which sounds, by Interpol standards at least, curiously relaxed, as befits a song that finds Banks yearning for life on an island off the coast of Mexico. Amid the usual dense lyrical imagery, there are lines that suggest optimism, or at least hard-won experience: “It’s alright to be, not to behave” he sings on Greenwich. Go Easy (Palermo) ends the album on something that sounds suspiciously like a positive note: “I’ll keep pushing forward, all the obstacles in my way have been falling.”
Again, that sounds as if it could apply to Interpol themselves. Perhaps inevitably, given that it all proceeds at roughly the same mid-tempo pace, The Other Side of Make-Believe has its longueurs – the lumbering Mr Credit among them – but it also has its pleasures: it doesn’t sound phoned in, which is much to its credit. Long past the point where they’re in the business of attracting new fans, they nevertheless keep moving, albeit subtly.
• The Other Side of Make-Believe is released 15 July.
This week Alexis listened to
Daphni – Cloudy
Simple as anything – a snatch of tumbling electric piano, cut-up vocals, an urgent rhythm track – but Dan Snaith’s return to the dancefloor nails the melancholy-yet-uplifting paradox perfectly.