If you’re Interpol, you must be hearing the words “return to form” a great deal these days. You’ve played the major label game, and retreated back to your original indie home, Matador Records. You lost your iconic bass player, and have struggled to prove you’re still the same band fans fell in love with on 2002’s Turn On the Bright Lights. Your last album was easily your most disappointing, and you’re out to prove that you’ve still “got it,” whatever that “it” may be.
In this sense, El Pintor (out today, Sept. 9, on Matador) fits the “return to form” bill. Interpol is still doing Interpol, and for the diehards, that’s just fine. Drop a rockin’ lead single like “All the Rage Back Home,” and there’s reason to get amped for an upcoming tour, rock out to “Slow Hands” again, or invite the band to the New York Met to play a very special show among 2,000-year-old ruins.
Frontman Paul Banks still sings like Paul Banks. He still writes eerie, distorted guitar lines that careen into those of bandmate Daniel Kessler. And now that he’s picked up the departed Carlos Dengler’s bass duties, Interpol’s guitar attack is almost predictable in its lack of predictability. Drummer Sam Fogarino could school legions of novice alt-rock drummers in establishing an off-kilter groove; backing Banks and Kessler, he sounds as comfortable as ever.
El Pintor succeeds in besting 2010’s Interpol, whose reception was so deflating, it could have killed the band’s career. But against even 2007’s ho-hum Capitol Records excursion Our Love to Admire (let alone Turn On the Bright Lights or even Antics), El Pintor fails to do much more than tread water. They sound afraid to write another big chorus a la “Slow Hands,” but aren’t willing to indulge into any artsy reinventions, either.
What went right and what went wrong with Interpol’s fifth studio album? Billboard takes a track-by-track look:
“All the Rage Back Home”: Is there any doubt this is the strongest El Pintor track? The crowds at recent Interpol gigs seem to think so, and since the band has already made its new lead single an encore song at recent shows, everyone seems to be on the same page. “Back Home” starts out sounding a lot like Antics’ tepid opener “Next Exit,” but uses a revved up pre-chorus as a launching pad into a driving rock groove. Lyrically, Banks sets the tone for another album of tainted romanticism, full of “he said/she said” and doubts on true love.
“My Desire”: This one exists right within Interpol’s wheelhouse. The band takes a stylish, slithering guitar line, drapes it in walls of reverb, and lets it brood towards its expected apex. It’s not about to change anyone’s opinion of Interpol — good or bad — but it’s good enough to keep the momentum moving following a strong opening track.
“Anywhere”: “The ocean, I could go anywhere!” sings Paul Banks, but this one doesn’t sound at all like an Expedia commercial, as the chorus might suggest. “Anywhere” is one of the most live-friendly tracks on El Pintor, but its ferocity is matched by pleasant intricacies in the production, like the mood-setting keyboard and Sam Fogarino’s fiery drum rolls.
“Same Town, New Story”: Track four is a frustrating song, much in the same way that 2010’s Interpol was a frustrating album. It introduces some great ideas in the opening seconds — alluring guitar spirals, answered by a punchy rhythm section — but fails to build them into anything cathartic. Despite interesting parts, it plods on to nowhere in particular, much like that previous LP.
“My Blue Supreme”: Interpol have earned praise for being “brooding” and “atmospheric” plenty of times before, but when those qualities are banked on without adding substance, you get duds like this. Banks is green with envy in the chorus (“Someone that I’m dying to be is cruising my blue Supreme”) but nothing in this meandering, mid-tempo number does anything to make Banks’ pain sound compelling.
“Everything Is Wrong”: The energy returns somewhat on the start of El Pintor side B, with this standard-issue, moderately nihilistic Interpol track, which occupies the nebulous grey area between “exciting” and “forgettable.”
“Breaker 1”: The ocean themes visited in the “All the Rage” video and the “Anywhere” lyrics return on “Breaker 1.” There’s a steady back-and-forth buildup and release in this song, as sparse, yearning verses lead into noisy, pounding releases.
“Ancient Ways”: From an instruments-only perspective, this is the most interesting song on El Pintor. Sam Fogarino gets a spry, free-form beat going, and the band layers heaps of dissonant guitar on top. It doesn’t sound like a perfect fit, but with the track’s driving force, “Ancient Ways” is up there with “All the Rage” and “My Desire” as the El Pintor tracks that sound the most live-friendly.
“Tidal Wave”: Again, the ocean vibes appear at track nine, as Interpol pieces some cacophonous instrumentals together into a seductive song. Fogarino is commanding on the drums, with the guitars, bass, and vocals all moving in and out, occupying similar spaces in the hazy mix. But speaking of vocals, it’s around this time that El Pintor’s dour lack of hooks starts to weigh heavy. After opening on a relative high, the album is in danger of fading into a stupor.
“Twice As Hard”: Build up the walls of distorted guitar, slow the drums down, and let Banks mope away! On a record like this, there’s really no choice but to double down on the brooding vibes to close things out. If they’re trying twice as hard at anything, it’s getting Interpol to sound like Interpol.