It’s kind of hard to believe, but Interpol’s debut Turn on the Bright Lights is ten this year. Hot on the trail of other now-classics like Is This It and Veni Vidi Vicious, it was really the first revival record to candidly document the shadowy underbelly of metropolitan cool. Right from the blurred guitars and plunging basslines on “Untitled,” you knew it was a special record. But it held a candle up to the darkness, refusing to overplay its hand. As Interpol ventured further into the gloom on successive releases, their music became much more about cultivating a mood than writing songs. It still remains to be seen whether Interpol will ever release another album, but Paul Banks, their soft-spoken frontman is carrying on with the same aesthetic with or without his band.
Banks is Paul Banks’ second solo record, the first to be released under his real name. Given the middling quality of Julian Plenti, it’s not all that surprising he’s leaving that moniker behind. There’s also brand recognition to consider. Banks upholds this principle not just in name but in appearance as well. There are flashes of experimentalism, but most of the focus seems to be on adding confusing levels of complexity to the album’s arrangements. This is evident from the outset. Minus a twinkling chorus that juxtaposes Banks’ voice with strings and finger-plucked guitars, lead single “The Base” swirls darkly, with several tiers of drone and echo.
This record certainly makes a case for Banks being more than a cog in Interpol. While the rhythm section is dialed down and sorely missing the force of Carlos D and Sam Fogarino, the fundamentals of many of these songs are solid. “Arise Awake” contains some truly eerie riffs, most notably at the bridge where Banks remarks: “The rules have changed/Now every side can win,” but it’s the arrangement itself that leaves the deepest imprint.
Banks’ talents as a lyricist have been called into question continuously throughout his career, drawing descriptors ranging from cryptic to dull, and he shows minimal growth in this area as well. In particular, he uses metaphor and simile much more effectively (“You only know me like the shoreline knows the sea”), but simpler refrains (“I feel young again/Thanks a lot”) feel less genuine and liberating. The utter inanity of clunker “I’ll Sue You” knocks the wind out of the middle section, and “No Mistakes,” while superficially pretty, never really forms fully, either.
But even with these small developments, Banks does feel somewhat circular. It’s as though it’s being gloomy because it can, because that’s just what Paul Banks does. The two instrumental tracks are fluffy, and “Summertime is Coming,” which was already released on this year’s Julian Plenti Lives, is tucked in at the end of the record, presumably to beef up the runtime. Banks is showing some desire to move beyond the design that his career has sustained itself on, but this album shows he’s not quite ready to cut the cord.