In the early 2000s, New York was a fertile breeding ground for a tonne of rock bands – one of the best albums in this period from The Big Apple was undoubtedly Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights. Despite following up with the tasteful and taught Antics in 2004, the band spent the next few years losing a founding member and releasing two middling albums that did their best to undo all their earlier work, making their originally charming brand of pained masculinity as unappealing as possible.
Their newest record, El Pintor, arrives after the band’s longest gap in between studio albums. Aside from being a clever anagram of the group’s name, and meaning ‘The Painter’ in Spanish, it subtly suggests that the New Yorkers have reshuffled and refreshed their sound.
Indeed, singer Paul Banks has called this a ‘fundamentally different’ record from those that have come before, and certainly first the single and album opener ‘All the Rage Back Home’ is fresh and invigorating. It’s a classic Interpol title, and sounds like the work of a band who actually like each other again.
There is great interplay between all members, and the recording contains guitarist Daniel Kessler’s most interesting work since Antics. Singer Paul Banks has never been the strongest lyricist, but his ambiguous wordplay here sounds suited for the ensuing sing-a-longs for their large live shows.
The second song to be released from the record, ‘Ancient Ways’ is a similarly thrilling track. Not since ‘Roland’ off their debut have they done rock for rock’s sake so well, sounding purposeful and with a great angry punk energy. Sam Fogarino’s unrelenting, thundering drumming anchors the band’s strong rhythm section, and Banks looks towards his band’s future as he roars “fuck the ancient ways”.
It would be silly to mourn the loss of Carlos D, who left the band after recording their self-titled effort in 2010, as the band didn’t sound like they were particularly enjoying themselves during that album. Nevertheless though, the bass lines on El Pintor – taken over by singer Banks for the recording and performed live by Brad Truax – are admittedly less interesting than they have been on previous releases.
Carlos was one of the most loved bassists in contemporary rock, and his absence here is noticeable on the first few listens. It seems now more than ever though the band is far more focused on a fuller, stadium-sized rock sound; more winding or intricate bass lines may have not suited this lusher sound. It also offers up chances for Kessler to do some of the best playing he’s done with the band.
Evidence of this comes on highlights ‘Anywhere’ and ‘Everything Is Wrong’ – the former with some stunning overdriven, reverb-drenched guitar work in the bridge section. These tracks in particular prove the band still has the ability to do classic Interpol songs very well. They’re uncomplicated earworms that don’t at all sound like the work of a band who possess millions of fans.
While there has always been a sense of melancholy about their music, for the first time in ten years the group sounds focused – it’s a pleasure to hear them making great punk-y tracks that match the excellent production of their last two records.
While its clear that the band are content to never fully reinvent their sound, there are moments of Interpol trying not to sound like Interpol, and they’re actually kind of great: the disco-tinged ‘Same Town New Story’ and the penultimate ‘Tidal Wave’ are both interesting album additions that prove the band haven’t stopped experimenting with their sound entirely.
The latter contains anxious, electronic-tinged verses that would make UK indie rock legends Wild Beasts proud, before launching into a huge, disparate-sounding chorus with Banks proclaiming “it smashes me just like a tidal wave” – this track especially pulls into sharp relief just how Interpol aspire to a far higher sense of grandeur than a lot of their contemporaries. The fact that they realise it here with an attractive sense of confidence is an achievement that must be commended.
It’s not all this good, though – the track ‘My Desire’ surrenders too readily to its main groove and is too repetitious. It’s the longest track on the album, and it feels like it. Sounding like an off-cut from their eponymous 2010 album, ‘My Blue Supreme’ doesn’t fare much better, again with an over-reliance on rhythm without much to latch on to melodically.
While ‘Twice as Hard’ isn’t that compelling a closer (let’s be honest, the band have never been that good at them), it’s nice to see they finally have a bit of sense of humour about their masculinity.
Final Verdict: Hit
Over their lifespan, Interpol have developed a lush punk rock sound that a lot of people have connected with. But whereas their past two releases have felt like hard work, with relentlessly tense and mournful hearts at their core, El Pintor finds the band once again making engaging, melancholic songs that are oddly hopeful and act as a catharsis for the band and their listeners. While it’s becoming less likely they’ll make an album as strong as their debut, El Pintor is the best the band has sounded in a decade.
It probably won’t rank in many critics’ top 10 end of year lists, but it’s a friendly, welcoming listen and a pleasure to spend time with – and isn’t that enough to make it a hit?