Revisiting the darkness and vigour of their past, the New Yorkers' fifth album is a revitalised return to form
“It feels like we’ve come full circle in a way,” Interpol’s frontman Paul Banks told NME earlier this year, at the start of their second stint on the NME Awards Tour (their first was supporting The Datsuns in 2003). New album ‘El Pintor’ mirrors that notion; it feels like a gigantic return to form after seven years of dwindling quality.
It’s an album that might never have been made. After the release of 2010’s self-titled effort, the band were under no obligation to make another record, so they went on hiatus and indulged in their own projects. Banks released his second solo album and dabbled in hip-hop mixtapes – 2013’s ‘Everybody On My Dick Like They Supposed To Be’ featured El-P and Talib Kweli – and then announced plans to work with RZA. Drummer Sam Fogarino formed rock side project Empty Mansions with Jesus Lizard’s Duane Denison and Secret Machines’ Brandon Curtis (a touring member of Interpol), while guitarist Daniel Kessler opened a seafood restaurant in Brooklyn. Time apart seems to have done them good, giving them a chance to fully exorcise the ghost of former bassist Carlos Dengler (who quit months before the release of ‘Interpol’) and regroup as a trio, revived.
As a result, ‘El Pintor’ is worlds apart from the difficult, dirge-y ‘Interpol’. Instead, it circles back around to the sonorous, tremulous sounds of the glory days, emulating their first two albums ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’ and ‘Antics’ while adding new ideas along the way. ‘Same Town, New Story’ subtly showcases Banks’ love of hip-hop with a synth motif that would be more at home on the rap instrumentals of Clams Casino, while ‘Twice As Hard”s urban leanings are so pronounced they even drop a “boo” into its opening verse. Elsewhere, falsetto litters the record – from the restrained murmurs of centrepiece ‘My Blue Supreme’ to the opening coos of the desolate ‘Everything Is Wrong’ – softening the frontman’s more abrasive vocals.
The record’s title itself hints at a more personal, unguarded listen – ‘El Pintor’ means ‘the painter’ in Spanish, both a language Banks is fluent in and a hobby he enjoys outside of the band (it’s also an anagram of Interpol). However, as befits a man renowned for refusing to explain the stories behind his songs, this new collection is as heavily coded and abstract as always – “There is a slope like an appetite,” he sings, bafflingly, on ‘Breaker 1’, while “Be tame, you wanna leave my lady lovers/Of my 18 summers alone” goes ‘All The Rage Back Home’. Us neither.
We might not be granted much insight into Banks’ mind but that doesn’t hinder Interpol when it comes to being back at their best. ‘Everything Is Wrong’ is proof positive that they’re still capable of making sheer despair sound effortlessly graceful, desirable even, Kessler echoing Banks’ paean to a “heart going numb” with glacial atmospherics. ‘My Blue Supreme’ trembles with a heartbroken longing that’s simultaneously crushing and irresistibly gorgeous and ‘Twice As Hard’ revisits ‘Interpol”s orchestral slant and pulls it off with success, as piano, viola and violin combine to produce a crashing climax to the album.
Ultimately, ‘El Pintor’ serves as a sharp jolt off the path of steady decline that the band’s New York peers like The Strokes and The Walkmen have been on since the late noughties. It would be hard to argue that Interpol are as vital as they once were – even with such an accomplished new work under their belts – but, fifth time round, they’re proving there’s still plenty of value in their elegantly downtrodden aesthetic.