Register Friday | June 2 | 2023


Whither Rock?

The New York-based foursome Interpol appeared a few years back in a guise of abrupt simplicity: quiet, well-dressed young men, their attentions focused someplace in the middle distance, playing a pointedly straightforward form of rock music. Echoes of the 1980s could be heard in the group's modular song design-everything in 4/4 time, stolid as a black sedan, and somewhat as dour-as well as within the urbane shimmer the band managed to create along its surface, a coldly romantic sheen that can't be replicated in any other medium. (Or so one occasionally feels when sitting alone with headphones and a vague discomfort at how one's day is unfolding.) The lyrics were elliptical and coded. They wore black suits on stage. Lead singer Paul Banks sang in this improbable voice (boyish, stentorian) that reminded too many music critics of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, and some very interesting music began to suffer under the weight of nostalgia.

When Interpol first appeared, rock was sucking in a manner I hadn't quite anticipated. This was 2002, remember. One might have forgotten how long it seemed that rock music had been funny-and by "funny," I mean queer in the head, not itself, constantly gesturing to the ironic or flippant, unclear and uninspired and terribly uninteresting. In rock terms, "interesting" has often meant indulgent and arty, but for my well-being, the "interesting" genre of rock music needed to make a comeback before rock ended up divided into two basic camps: Nickelback and the White Stripes. Those polar aesthetics aren't remotely sufficient for me, and hopefully not for anyone else.

Interpol's elegance and sartorial style were incidental, far secondary to the songwriting, and if the music ended up being played in chic clothing boutiques that catered to the well-off, I didn't much care. Something interesting was taking place.

Listening to Interpol's debut, Turn On The Bright Lights, with guitarist Daniel Kessler's pealed, percussive, single-note repetitions, was a strange and happy experience for reasons I can't quite articulate. The exit riff on "PDA" and the lovely, lilting guitar solo that closed "Leif Erikson" were appeals of a kind that rock music didn't often bother to make anymore: direct and intelligent appeals to an angry heart, made with yearning of a thickness one feels only in massive chunks of electrified pop music. Interpol's elegance and sartorial style were incidental, far secondary to the songwriting, and if the music ended up being played in chic clothing boutiques that catered to the well-off, I didn't much care. Something interesting was taking place.

Interpol's second album, Antics, has been out since last September, and it's an addictive, often remarkable piece of work on par with R.E.M's Document. It's rock music that takes into account rock's status as an often unpleasant commodity. To my ears, Antics is the most interesting album of 2004. What it manages to do is speak to the times in a way that art-art I like, anyway-should: it delivers the future in advance. Interpol is not much dedicated to nostalgia, despite what you may have heard. Antics is the sort of rock that's sharply focused on a spot just a few moments ahead of the present, like headlights on a dark road. A comparison with R.E.M. is meant as high praise, since for a time R.E.M. did the very same thing: dealt with the medium of rock without trying to pass off the product as something else, something clever or hybrid, something experimental or conspicuously "now." The music was still recognizably rock. Stipe's lyrics are elder cousins to Paul Banks' words-heart and mind as collision, a pictorial collage-and Interpol's songwriting exemplifies a tradition of comfortable self-awareness: it wants rock to purge inward more than outward, taking note of the music's limitations as well as its peculiar beauties. This approach makes for very different rock.

For me, Turn On The Bright Lights was like a lush, slatternly girl at the end of the bar: more forbidding than sexy, not old, not young, a little evasive, visibly attractive but made all the more so by high-quality pheromones-my attraction to the experience was gut-level, and I didn't care if friends told me the woman was cheap and derivative. Her beauty was still so damned interesting. Kessler's glorious repeating quarter-notes doubled and split into competing melodies, intensely sad, somewhat lost. At the four-minute mark-the place most bands start to wind up for the big finish-Interpol's songs started to get even better. Their bridges and codas sometimes upended the original figure, pushing the form as much as is possible without tipping into pretentiousness. This kind of "method" (a sick and unsexy word when applied to rock music) updated the work of the Cure, a group that should be known less for its Gothic gestures than for how beautifully and consistently it managed to stitch seven different lines into a coherent whole within a single song.

This, to me, makes for a sound that's never less than interesting. Let me digress briefly for two examples of what I mean by that:

1) Some five years ago, Noel Gallagher, leader of the loud, oft-confused British rock band Oasis, was asked his opinion of the confusing, oft-brilliant British "rock" band Radiohead. This was at a time when Radiohead was becoming a worldwide big deal, but for most listeners "rock" was a less than accurate term of designation. Noel Gallagher-either in malice or in jest-dismissed the members of Radiohead as a bunch of blokes who went to art school. There seemed nothing more derogatory he could say about people who claimed to play rock for a living.

2) Some seventeen years ago, Rob Meyer, a kid I went to high school with, leaned over the reading table of the school library and lifted up my copy of Rolling Stone to see who was on the cover. "America's best rock & roll band?" he read, quoting the caption beside four serious-looking young men. "Right." Rob was laughing at R.E.M., at that time a beloved college outfit that had just released its fifth album, Document. I asked Rob who he'd nominate, if he was so smart. He made a devil's sign with both hands. "Mötley Crüe." A pause settled between us. There was nothing-repeat, nothing-ironic about his nomination. He was daring me to think otherwise. At that moment, a force inside me wanted to argue, but that force also told me I'd lose. What could I mumble in defence? That Mötley Crüe wasn't nearly as ... interesting?

Rock always turns atavistic; it just does. One will lose the argument if one takes the arty side.

If Rob were still here, I would sit him down and say, "Rob, Antics is what I mean by 'interesting.'" On first listen, the album is art-rock, tuneless and bland, indulgent to the point of insomnia; no hooks anywhere, nothing to grab onto, not even memories of Joy Division. On repeated listens, however, the curtains part and hooks are all one hears: those opening notes to "Narc," which manage to be nasty and dreamy at the same time, establish a four-note riff that serves as the song's spine as Banks and bassist Carlos D branch away from it with lines that don't initially fit, one soft, one hard, until the one-minute mark, when the whole band comes together for a chord-I do not know which-with its own gorgeous internal melodies and the triumphal lyric "She found a lonely sound ..." That same four-note riff will be transmuted into something else by the song's end, something sadder and more hopeless; all the while, Banks sings of love and ownership and desire as clearly (or obtusely) as the Michael Stipe I've been missing for over a decade, enough to make me think, "What the freaking hell is going on?" as well as "How is this so freaking effective?" and a little bit of "How does a simple pop song, molested by power chords, manage to sound futuristic?"

That feeling repeats over the course of the album at a hundred tiny, star-sharp points: Kessler's little echoing riff before the chorus of "Take You On A Cruise"; the way Banks seems to make the guitar-voice melody line of "Not Even Jail" sound like orders from the mouth of a new lover; the bridge to the final chorus in "Slow Hands," a gorgeous move that at this point is a signature for a band with two LPs to its credit. What can I say? It's all so damned interesting. It's also hard and hopeful and witty and emotionally accessible in the extreme, which shouldn't be dismissed by people who in 2004 are really getting off on the Darkness or something similar. Rock always turns atavistic; it just does. One will lose the argument if one takes the arty side.

But since I have Rob here with me in this fantasy, I'd further confess that, yes, all those years ago I too understood Mötley Crüe, I worshipped them as you did, and in 1987 I watched the video for "Wild Side" more times than I watched myself in the mirror, but still, then as well as now, whenever I want something that connects the restless mind and the random heart-swell with whatever punkish, chaotic impulses make up the "rock" gene, well, Rob, I hope for albums like Interpol's Antics.

And if you make that devil's sign in my face again, I'm kicking your ass.

Paul Winner unfurls the Score every second Monday.