By T.J. Dempsey | Music Editor Published: 06/13/2013 8:00 am EST
Paul Banks' alter-ego, in full regalia.
It’s a rather daunting prospect, looking back to the past. There’s just so much of it, and with more piling up every day, it’s only natural that we’d feel inclined to take shortcuts. The human mind is capable of perceiving a staggering depth and breadth of detail at any given moment, yet our memories are largely comprised of the big stuff, or at least larger representations of all those details. We turn to monuments, to landmarks in order to gain a sense of where we stand and what got us there.
It’s as true of geography as it is of the mind, as it is of popular music. While the “historians” may test themselves on a full understanding of the ever changing face of pop music, the general public turn to those standard bearers that we’ve conveniently posted as a means of quick orientation. Of the 1960’s, one might lose sight of ‘Forever Changes’ by Love in the shadow of The Beatles; The Clash and The Ramones are veritable boulevards running through Punk Rock City, but good luck getting Death to pop up on the GPS. It’s important to consider what music we put above the rest, especially when doing so is as simple as ascribing a series of stars or numbers next to it in a database somewhere. When we do so, for better or ill, we’re leaving future generations with little say in whether or not those are “classics.” By then, it’d be like saying a mountain isn’t a real part of the landscape.
All this is to say that we have to be mindful of how we appraise works of art, as those who come after us may follow our lead. While this does include advocating great works that would otherwise be overlooked, it also means not overselling our opinion of a work in the heat of the moment. When I argue this point, I think specifically of albums like ’21st Century Breakdown’ and ‘Modern Vampires of the City,’ two of the most recent albums I know of to have earned Rolling Stone’s prestigious 4.5/5 star rating (the highest rating available to a modern release, it would seem). Neither of these perfectly fine albums have, in my opinion, the inherent staying power to endure through the years on their own merit. Still, by virtue of them striking the right chord with the right critic at the right time, they both are now immortally stamped with a signifier that future generations may turn to in contextualizing their own opinions and tastes.
So it goes that, even in art and music, first impressions matter. One artist in particular who should be keenly aware of this is Paul Banks, singer and frontman for the band Interpol. When his group debuted their first album, 2002’s ‘Turn on the Bright Lights,’ the accolades were fervent and ever-present. At least, they were to me when I finally got around to discovering that album following the release of 2005’s ‘Antics.’ Unlike its predecessor, ‘Antics’ was a more conventional rock album, anchored by standout singles and with a greater emphasis on each song’s core melody. Fans of the album will note that this turn toward more familiar song construction didn’t dispel any of Interpol’s trademark themes or motifs: ‘NARC’ is a terrifically alienated love song, and ‘Public Pervert’ seems like the slightly more extroverted sibling to ‘Stella was a Diver and She was Always Down.’ Songs like ‘C’mere’ and ‘Length of Love’ wouldn’t even seem out of place with Interpol’s earlier songs, though granted, they do possess a poppier payoff. All told, when I first came to Interpol through ‘Antics,’ the group had every indication of a bright future ahead of them.
But then, so to speak, Interpol became caught in the shadows cast by’Bright Lights.’ Their debut album was simply too seminal, as key to the time and place from which it spawned (early 2000’s New York) as it was distinct from it. Interpol’s dynamic of staccato bass and fuzzy, droning guitars, in direct opposition to the typical style of arrangement, could be looked back on as a portent for the limited lifespan of the new millennium’s burgeoning rock scene, or even that of Interpol itself. There’s always been a slightly mournful tinge to even the most propulsive of Interpol songs; like Joy Division before them, the Interpol of ‘Bright Lights’ possess a sound that revels in the fleeting and immaterial.
It’s difficult for me to objectively judge whether the backlash to the Interpol albums that were to follow, 2007’s ‘Our Love to Admire’ and 2010’s self-titled release, stemmed from genuine, visceral reactions or whether it was all a part of the comedown off the heights of ‘Bright Lights.’ Those two latter albums certainly seem to be striving for that original sound more than ‘Antics’ did, and where all the songs of Interpol’s debut were individually distinct while functioning cohesively together, Interpol’s most recent albums didn’t (or couldn’t, as it were) recapture the storied sense of ‘Bright Light’ reputation, certainly not soon enough for the critics to take note. Now, as a markedly smaller Interpol set about preparing for their next album (minus the familiar bass of Carlos Dengler, who left shortly after recording ‘Interpol’), we’ll be left to see if Interpol’s reputation will always be made to precede them.
That was likely the impetus for Paul Bank to set out on his own in 2009, with the release of ‘…is Skyscraper’ and the assuming of the identity Julian Plenti. Again, this would have been about the time that ‘Interpol’ was finishing up, certainly in time for Dengler to have departed. One imagines it would have been a freeing reprieve for Banks to momentarily escape into a new persona, one free from the stakes and expectations of prior accomplishments. As a result, ‘…is Skyscraper’ has a much more confident sound than the Interpol records that surrounded it; ‘Antics’ would actually be the closer relative, what with its more playful vibe and flagrant flaunting of expectations.
“Only If You Run” makes the transition easy for incoming Interpol fans, quickly subbing out Banks’ new utilization of synths for a more familiar, Dengler-ian bass riff. The song structured on those bones is a more soothing, optimistic creature compared to Interpol’s romantically gloomy sensibility, a noticeable turn that resurfaces on the classically sparse piano track, “Madrid Song,” as well as through the floating, fairy tale chimes of “No Chance Survival.” This air of optimism reaches it’s pinnacle on “Unwind,” a triumphant parade march that balances swelling trumpet calls with soft, ethereal verses. It’s the brighter half of ‘…Skyscraper’s’ cores strength: its captivating and pervasive air of drama. It’s the sense of building action on “Games for Days,” a mounting tension that breaks out in a thrilling catharsis on the chorus; it’s the shimmering raindrop acoustics of “On the Esplanade,” a romantic tragedy suffused with feelings of loss and doubt.
At the end, with the discordant walls of sound that come to envelope “Fly as You Might” and the instrumental “H,” said drama comes to its close, affirming its sense of unrequited longing and loneliness. It’s a shockingly honest, personal thematic statement, the kind that a pseudonym like “Julian Plenti” typically allows to flow freely and without hindrance. Perhaps that gets at the core of why, 3 years later, Banks would find relatively less success on his eponymous solo debut, ‘Banks.’ While it features its fair share of strong compositions, as well as an increasingly ambitious sheen to its production, most of the songs feel more self-reflective rather than genuinely introspective or universally resonant. It almost seems like Banks is laboring under the weight of two degrees of expectation: both from his earlier work with Interpol and from his successful reinvention as Plenti.
The EP that preceded ‘Banks,’ ‘Julain Plenti Lives…,’ would seem to have it known that Banks is done with obfuscating his identity via aliases. Indeed, 2013 brought with it news that the three remaining members of Interpol would be reuniting, the results of which are yet to be seen. Now, the initial impulse is to hold out hope that this will mark a return to form for Banks and company, that the days of ‘Bright Lights’ and ‘Antics’ are not beyond reclaiming. Then again, considering some of the unfortunate tendencies that have percolated up from Paul Banks’ music over the past year (I’m thinking specifically of the inane “Another Chance,” and the head-scratching mixtape that it tried to warn us about), perhaps it’s the days of Plenti that we should be hoping for a comeback.
Thomas Dempsey hails from Greenville County, South Carolina, where he has made a name for himself assembling and delivering sandwiches. A graduate of Presbyterian College with a duel major in Creative Writing and History and a minor in film, he’s achieved the technical status of professional writer by contributing to Examiner.com as a DVD critic. An aficionado of all media, Thomas harbors a particular affinity for visual storytelling and music.