Firstly, a ton of critics have done the damnest thing of picking out single lines, throwing them out of context and using that as “evidence” that Paul Banks is a bad lyricist. Please stop embarrassing yourselves; examples to defend him forthcoming:
1. ”Her stories are boring and stuff” is a great line – a human one – because the colloquialism is common in conversation and for whatever reason rare in music.
2. The same goes with the filler word in “My best friend’s from Poland and um he has a beard” line from “Roland.” That track’s all just good fun anyway, placed nicely after the depressing “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down,” built around nonsensical lines and Seussical rhymes.
3. ”The subway is a porno” line of “NYC” might sound awkward on paper, but Paul Banks delivers it in such a way that it never does and it works in the song’s murky context (the opening chords sound eerily like they’re being played on a keyboard). Not only that, it’s a good metaphor that I can’t believe people haven’t exploited ten times over by now: people get on and get off subways without much thought. Add “NYC” in the long list of songs about New York City from artists that reside there who paint a grimy picture of it (ie. LCD Soundsystem’s “Yr City’s A Sucker, My City’s A Creep” and “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” and, um, about every song Lou Reed has ever written).
4. The closing lines of the album, “Leif Erikson”’s “Her love’s a pony, my love’s subliminal.” Always liked this one to be honest (it’s a metaphor, in case you’re taking things a little too literally), and in the context of the song where it appears to be about a man taking someone else’s virginity (Leif Ericson was the first European to find North America, not Christopher Columbus, you dolt), with lines like “She says it helps with the lights out” and “If you don’t bring up those lonely parts / This could be a good time / It’s like learning a new language.” Actually, the whole song is an example Paul Banks being a good lyricist, if anything, especially the couplet, “She feels that my sentimental side should be held with kid gloves / But she doesn’t know that I left my urge in the icebox.”
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Anyway, this is a one of a kind album, the best one of 2002 and one of the best of the decade.
To give a little bit of historical context, in the beginning of the 00’s, with the emergence of pop stars like Britney Spears who dominated media, tabloids were quick to label the Strokes as “Saviors of rock and roll.” With the release of 2001’s Is This It, tabloids began to spotlight other garage rock revival bands, a.k.a. the bands (the White Stripes, the Hives, etc.). Turn on the Bright Lights is to post-punk what Is This It was to garage rock, the flagship album that brought about a revival (however short-lived either turned out; a whole year’s worth of productivity!). But in comparison to those “the bands”, Interpol benefit from having a great rhythm section; enthusiastic live performances aside, that’s one of the reasons why bassist Carlos D was more popular than singer/guitarist Paul Banks. If you want a good example of rhythm, you need only listen to the opening 30 seconds of “Say Hello to the Angels.” Lasers. Chugging guitar. Toe-tapping drums. Go! Go! (Seriously, when I learn how to tap-dance, this will be the first song I’ll do it to, however hard that might be). They also benefitted from the interplay between two guitarists who know what they’re doing and know how to play off each other. Case in point, listen to “Obstacle 1,” and how one creates a steady rhythm while the other plays brief, two-note stabs. Nothing complicated at all, but it sounds amazing. Listen specifically to how they sound when Paul Banks sings, “You go stabbing yourself in the neck” (the 2:20 mark). In other words, Turn on the Bright Lights is better than Is This It, though both bands followed the exact same trajectory.
Other stuff to note: the drum rolls in “Obstacle 1” that start at the 2:30 mark. 90’s-era Jimmy Chamberlain is back, ladies and gentlemen, and better than ever; that really long pause at the 2:03 mark, after Paul Sings “Somehow I’m not impressed…” and you’re waiting for him to launch into the “But New York Cares” part, but it doesn’t and the drums kick in and the tremolo-picked guitar washes down like a waterfall; the falsetto’ed backing vocals in the climaxes in both “Obstacle 1” and “PDA” that provide a nice juxtaposition with Paul Banks’s baritone; the way Paul Banks goes “Ah—ah—woooooo” at the end of “Obstacle 2”; the entirety of “The New,” from the way Banks delivers the first verse nonchalantly, and gets infinitely more melodic afterwards, “I…gave a lot to you / I…take a lot from you too” (“…”’s added for emphasis) to the instrumental buildup at the 1:21 mark – those 2-beat thumping drums are thunderous, and those pinging guitars remind me of the less cacophonous moments in Sonic Youth’s discography, until everything comes crashing down at the 2:28 mark; the guitar solo at the 3:13 mark of “Leif Erikson,” joined in shortly by Banks’s “You come here to meeeeee” (has longing ever been so well communicated?) that continues until the track comes to a nice close. There are not bad tracks on the album: only “Hands Away” is superfluous, but even then, it provides much-needed breathing room after the opening block.
When I listen to Turn on the Bright Lights, I don’t hear Joy Division; not every post-punk band with a baritone singer needs to be compared to them. The thing is, their vocal styles aren’t even remotely the same; it’s hard to imagine Ian Curtis singing something as wordy as “Obstacle 2”, and at the very least, Paul Banks has a more mobile voice than Ian Curtis (see specifically, the “It’s up to me now, turn on the bright lights” melody of “NYC” and the “This is a new year” section on “Say Hello to the Angels,” or the opening perfect fifth interval, “She said” of “Leif Erikson” as examples). The band had more in common with the Chameleons, if anything. And when I listen to Turn on the Bright Lights, I don’t hear the post-9/11 landscape that so many people talk about, with the possible exception of the mostly instrumental “Untitled,” whose guitars do sound like sirens (made even more obvious in a live show I saw in 2010).
Do you know what I do hear when I listen to Turn on the Bright Lights? Damn good music.