Album Review: Interpol – The Other Side of Make-Believe

[Matador; 2022]

For a group this solid over a career now spanning over 20 years, filled with sharp style and ideas, Interpol’s development has followed a strange tidal motion. For a band this consistent and clever, it’s odd to see them face so many recurring ‘make-or-break’ moments. Every time they seem to have proven themselves, they face hostile critics and baffled fans, only to return with yet another on-point project a few years later.

So, to bring everyone up to speed: after two iconic, masterful releases that vaguely mirror Joy Division’s development from smoky dark punk to vaguely electronic wave act, their third record – the sexy and sexual razorblade-rock of Our Love to Admire – was met with awkwardly divided reception. It includes some of their very best songs and most beautifully sad arrangements, yet the record for some reason lost them indie-cred and started the navel gazing music press questioning the band’s every step. By the time their self-titled fourth album was released, their eccentric bass player and figurehead Carlos D. was no longer with the band, and Interpol was reduced to a trio.

The news foreshadowed a schizophrenic and uncertain record, which included the unbelievable “Lights”, but other times felt like production ideas eclipsed time spent on songwriting, with most of it drifting awkwardly into a grey void of collapsing ideas and opposing atmospheres. It’s no surprise that the band pondered just shutting it all down in the process. Thankfully they didn’t, and returned with their most pop-oriented and crystalline record, the crowd-pleasing El Pintor, which embraced Interpol’s funkier side and somewhat functions as their Head on the Door or Power, Corruption & Lies. But then followed another plot twist, the rough-shelled Marauder, chiselled from distortion by Mercury Rev’s Dave Fridmann and committed on two-channel tape. The album resulted in modest appraisal here, baffled dismissal there, and somehow felt like a significant downgrade all around. It’s much better than the self-titled for sure, but it continues to remain somewhat of a Rubik’s Cube, tho slowly revealing itself with time.

One constant remaining was the shadow of the past: somehow, as the always humble Paul Banks never fails to acknowledge, the band seems to reside in the shadow of their insanely brilliant debut and the likewise masterful follow up, doomed to be held accountable for experimentation and benevolent repetition alike. And so, logically inevitable, for The Other Side of Make-Believe the band turned to Flood, a producer who breaches the mainstream and the underground, known for his strong instinct for authenticity and beauty. Flood’s achievements are legendary, having caught The Smashing Pumpkins, PJ Harvey and Depeche Mode at their most effortlessly brilliant. Here, he manages to cut Interpol into shape like no one besides Peter Katis achieved before: this is their best record since they split from Carlos D., an aggressive, spacious, moody collection of brutalist romanticism and morbid guitars. Seven albums in, and they’ve achieved their Pornography – their The Idiot!

The two early standouts come in the first two singles, “Toni” and “Something Changed”. The first slowly builds itself into a funky disco swagger reminiscent of Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love in Me”. It’s all sexy piano lines and Carlos Alomar-style jagged guitars, ending on a surprisingly resonant emotional climax. “Something Changed” is its opposite, a harrowing account of lost love, where a hollow sounding Banks spiders around the nihilism living within a broken heart: “I waited through shame for this / Are you there? / Every day I’d see if chance was calling / Are you there?” Instead of piling on clutter and unnecessary sonic layers, the song melts down in its second half, trusting faint feedback and Banks’ ability to act out turmoil. “Something Changed” resurrects the dread of “Leif Erikson” and transports it to a smoked out nightclub.

Judging by those two tracks, it’s hard to believe the band considered the album a hopeful and optimistic work to contrast the lockdown anxiety, trying to do away with the darkness. And these don’t even touch the bottom of the void: there’s the seductive mid-tempo “Into the Night”, constantly reconfiguring the song’s structure with its oddly timed guitar and Banks vocals, which are muted as if he’s singing from inside a coffin. Speaking of Banks, the characteristically self-critical front man delivers some of his most potent imagery to date on here as well: “Holly’s in the darkness / Holly’s in the wild now / Sentimental neighbors / Fallen trees are calling me to guide them through the soil / Into the night”.

The song is reminiscent of Antics’ brilliant “Take You on a Cruise”, minus the dual E-bowing, in how it frames longing and betrayal as movements of melancholy. Maybe the oddly timed guitar suggests an imbalance, a constant confusion of the narrator how to respond to his opposite – something Banks himself seemingly reflects on with the line “Seems to me they took violence for dancing”. The idea that destruction could be seen as a form of aesthetic by others is truly unsettling, and the off-kilter effect of the composition mirrors that confusion.

Yet further down goes the hopeless “Passenger”, which reduces Banks to a naked, fragile whisper, his voice brittle. The narrator becomes his own judge, jury and executioner, admitting his lack of confidence and how he is caught in impotent flirtations to make up for the trauma he received in the past, unable to find rest or any sort of alleviation from his misery: “Free from these fables, we can grow / Blossom into bodies too frail to hold / As I commit to this high wall of love, will I ever sleep?” Dan Kessler’s guitar blossoms into beautiful configurations, as we are rejected a resolution, slowly fading away into nothingness. It’s a distant cousin of Bowie’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car”, both tonally and thematically.

And then there’s the most outstanding and awe inspiring song of the record, the muscular and downright evil “Mr. Credit” – a “fever dream” whose narrator “is not to be trusted” according to Banks. Sounding like being beaten by two merciless fists, it conjures strange, violent images: “I had a dream the ground was black and the air was searing / […] The roads are just scratches, the talk is sevеre”. The Lynchian tone recalls the vile nihilism of Twin Peaks Mr. C – and it could be theorized that he indeed is the titular Mr. Credit, somebody who smells of smoke, tar and engine oil: “I wanna be therе when you touch fire / I’ll be the hand to pull you up, tiger / I wanna be there when you cut the wire / I’m the living end, I plead as such”. When the track hits its menacing peak, it all of a sudden drops to nothing but guitars and Banks growling seductively, only to build itself back up to its full noisy potential. It’s frightening, and as black and grim as Interpol have been, the minotaur in this labyrinthine structure.

Sadly, not every song here is as fully realized. “Gran Hotel”, kind of this album’s “C’Mere” via the Pumpkins’ “Zero”, is a straightforward rocker that only develops in its last minute – a change up that, Banks reveals, only came about when the engineer bluntly remarked “Do you have anything else?” It works as a single, and likely blooms live, but comes across as underdeveloped in the context of so many intellectual ideas and emotional performances.

Likewise, it’s a bit of a mystery why the record ends on “Go Easy (Palermo)”, a short mid-tempo track that can’t catch up with Interpol’s traditionally striking, atmospheric closers. It would have better fared if it preceded “Passenger” or “Something Changed” as closer, a short reprieve before a more emotional and sombre statement. This might sound like an odd complaint, but it does put a bit of a stop to the dramaturgy of the whole. There is also the quite weird “Fables”, which seems typical enough for the band, but climaxes in this layered outro choir that sounds quite inhumane, and borderline uncanny. A lesser critic would dismiss this delivery as being reminiscent of a cat – truth be told, it’s a bold and interesting choice in a track that isn’t among the very best.

On other tracks, Flood intervened and pushed the band to go further than originally intended, and it works. “Renegade Hearts” had Flood dissatisfied, turning to work with drummer Sam Fogarino on the drum part, finally coming up with a really intriguing and unique rhythm that frames the twin guitars of the track perfectly. There’s also the experimental guitar line of “Greenwich”, which is one of Interpol’s most angular compositions, especially once the song introduces noise and diffusion to the mix, like an odd ice crystal that looks solid but is disintegrating and fracturing upon touch. Just like “Passenger”, it is reminiscent of Bowie’s (or Iggy’s) Berlin-era aesthetics, but with its crackling and labyrinthine sense of doom, it borders on Scott Walker’s perfectly grim material on Nite Flights.

It’s interesting to see Interpol come up with a record this complex and adventurous this far in their career, when they were seemingly betrayed by wilfully raw vigor (Marauder) and complex compositional ambitions (Interpol) alike, at least according to collective appraisal. The Other Side of Make-Believe catches them bold, vital and fearless. It plays to their strengths in most places and often challenges them to retain the will to be original and innovative in their established modus. This will likely lead some to bemoan that the band – still – “sounds like Interpol”, but in reality it’s shrugging off El Pintor’s crowd-pleasing gloss and Our Love to Admire’s erotic edginess for an elaborate language of withered leather and cracked facades, feverish mood swings and co-dependent butchers. This is the most Berlin they’ve ever sounded, hints of Television, Iggy, Bowie and Christian Death integrated within a mysterious alchemical process. Anyone who allows this album into their heart will soon find themselves poisoned by a sense that things never were quite like what we perceived them to be.