Tuesday, September 16, 2014

album review: 'el pintor' by interpol

It's a well-known fact that at the beginning of the 2000s, we saw a wave of shockingly good, career-defining records from the indie scene that didn't just define the possibility of a garage rock revival, but the shape of indie rock going forward. Bands like The Strokes, The Vines, The Hives, and The White Stripes were the first, but bands like The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, The Arctic Monkeys, and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs weren't far from the punch. But the truly alarming thing was that many of these bands would fail to carry forward their success throughout the rest of the decade, either flaming out, breaking up, or delivering significantly mixed results throughout the next ten years, or at the very least cursed with constant comparisons to their early days that they'd never be able to live down.

And one of the most notable of those bands was Interpol, a New York based indie rock band that exploded into the indie scene with the critically beloved Turn On The Bright Lights and Antics, two records filled with memorably chunky riffs, tight bass work, and great drumming. And yet a shift to a major label brought their 2007 record Our Love To Admire that saw the bass shoved back to a mix that had aspirations to grandness that the band couldn't back up instrumentally and certainly not lyrically. Interpol had always been a band caught between the grand earnest insecurities of teenage dreams and being smart enough to know better, but Our Love To Admire saw them trying on more of an assertive rock star persona and man, did it fit uncomfortably. They left that label for their self-titled fourth album in 2010, and while it did work a little better, it was also a sign that the darkness, rock star gravitas and internal frustrations had taken its toll on the band. Interpol had tackled dark material before, but this was the first time the music had mirrored the subject matter and while it felt cohesive, it was not an album most fans were eager to revisit.

So with the departure of their bassist Carlos Dengler, Interpol managed to pull things together for their fifth album El Pintor, an anagram for the band's name and Spanish for 'the painter'. So, what did the album deliver?

Honestly, a pretty good record. Even though I'll go on record for never really being a huge fan of Interpol, El Pintor is an album that does showcase Interpol regaining some creative energy and presence albeit wearing some of the scars of previous missteps. In other words, while I wouldn't quite say its at the level of their creative heights, it's still solid enough to be worth recommending to Interpol fans and an interesting listen to those who are curious.

First, let's address the elephant in the room: Carlos Dengler's absence is felt on this album, because the best of Interpol's work has always been characterized by tight bass riffs and it's nearly been a decade since that bass work has been properly emphasized. That said, Paul Banks' work on bass is solid when the mix balance brings it more to the forefront, like on the album openers 'All The Rage Back Home' and 'My Desire' or on the aggressive riffing of 'Breaker 1'. It's a shame said mix balance is not anything close to consistent, because the production balance of this album is really hit-and-miss. One of Interpol's biggest strengths is its ability to blend clear strident guitar lead melodies with potent grooves kept at a tight aggressive tempo... and with the production balance of this album, that tightness really is not emphasized as much as it should. Don't get me wrong, there are still memorable guitar moments: the memorable riffs on 'Same Town, New Story' or 'My Desire' or the U2-esque flutter on 'Everything Is Wrong', but more often than not the reverb bleeds across the mix and completely saturates the mid-range, which not only makes it all the harder for the bass work to stand out but it also suffocates and washes out the melodies. Songs like 'My Blue Supreme', 'Ancient Ways', and 'Tidal Wave' feel like they're swallowed up in their own sound, and the additional of thin synthesizer lines don't help matters. 'Tidal Wave' is the prime example of this: I like the bass and drums and some of the guitar melodies on the track, but the combination of the constantly repeating guitar line and lightweight synth and heavy reverb on the vocal production makes the entire track run together into a total mess.

On that note, the vocals are also a little hit-and-miss here too. Paul Banks still has the emotive hangdog presence that has granted his songs a lot of spirit and quiet charm, but the reverb piled onto the vocals do not help them stand out through the rest of the mix. I would say that it's reminiscent of current trends in reverb-saturated indie rock, but this has been an issue I've had with Interpol for years now - one of the reasons I've never been a huge fan - and to see it become more of an issue on this album does get distracting. Granted, I get why the reverb was used - mostly because the few attempts where Paul Banks attempts to go into falsetto were pretty cringe-inducing, mostly because his voice is very thin in this range and the reverb can somewhat obscure that. 

So what about lyrics? Well, Interpol has developed something of a reputation over the past decades of having lyrics that are hard to parse out and interpret and work more on emotion rather than hard substance, and this record isn't much of an exception. The free-form, rambling song structures are still intact as Interpol sketches out their stories of frustrated, conflicted relationships. And what I've always liked about Interpol's songwriting is the framing: songs like 'All The Rage Back Home' and 'Same Town, New Story' paint pictures of complicated relationships where the guy is straining for freedom against a girlfriend who is struggling to be supportive, and the songwriting is smart enough to not villainize either side and paint them as human beings. That struggle to break free and change is one of the biggest underlying motifs of the album - and what I like is that the iconography the men in these songs present feels increasingly hollow. On songs like 'Anywhere' and 'My Blue Supreme', they have these defiantly teenage dreams of breaking free or cruising in a classic car... and yet while they're dreams he can pursue, they're also dreams that he would pursue alone.

This is where we run into the inherent contradiction of El Pintor, and probably the most interesting element of it: the narrator of this record craves the companionship and that connection, someone to travel with and do everything - it's why the feeling of impending doom is so palpable on 'Tidal Wave' as the rush of time sweeps the old friend away that could have come with him. But at the same time, whenever there is a relationship, it becomes less a partnership and more an anchor dragging the narrator back, the same traditions he rebelled against on 'Ancient Ways'. And what's telling is how the album ends on 'Twice As Hard' - it's bittersweet and ambiguous, where the relationship seems all the more tenuous as the connections between them fray apart, but it never really makes a statement whether to sever the connection altogether or whether he's recommitting to the girl in question. It seems to imply he is giving in and giving back 'twice as hard', but the tone is dark and sour, as if that choice is the last thing he really wants to do, even if he believes it's ultimately the right thing to do. And if anything, that's a very telling statement about maturity and settling down in this sort of relationship: it's a relationship built on bitterness and resentment, but it's still one he craves. It's not as fun as the open ride... but then again, that open ride is only as fun as the person you're sharing it with, and that person can't support blissful irresponsibility forever.

In other words, if you can't tell, the emotional stakes of this album really are complicated - and that's a fine word to describe how I feel about it too. Let me stress that the lyrical ambition, the themes, and many of the riffs are enough for me to recommend El Pintor, but it's also a muddled record that's mirrors the conflicted lack of focus of its protagonists and as such the emotional weight feels oddly distributed. I think I might respect this album more than I like it, but it's a level of respect that earns this record a solid 7/10 and a recommendation. I won't say El Pintor reaches the highs of Turn On The Bright Lights or Antics, but it's a step in the right direction, and definitely worth a listen, so check it out.

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