Turn On The Bright Lights: A Retrospective

Turn On The Bright Lights was released now almost 18 years ago, at the tail end of 2002. I’ve often heard this period and scene in rock music, early 2000s alternative rock that is, referred to as the garage rock revival. The music coming from the scene was very far removed from the 70s and 80s stadium rock, hair metal and glam rock scenes but it also didn’t have the same kind of anger and unrest that came with movements like punk and grunge. It was certainly a return to something less industrial but it wasn’t an angry rejection, it was mostly just college kids making music they liked with their friends.

Interpol

That was the scene Interpol came in. Essentially a band formed at NYU in the late 90s the band went through multiple EPs before releasing Turn On The Bright Lights. And I believe it to be one of the best albums of the 2000s.

It opens with the haunting Untitled. As soon as Untitled begins their influences become very clear as the opening sounds like a faint echo of Joy Division being played far away. The drums and the bass soon come in and the song gets a nice walking push and pace to it. As it develops there is a slow layering of sounds and especially guitar riffs. Combined with upper registered synthetic sounding drones all the individual parts form a haze of sounds with an interesting texture. Each part is simple by itself, but they blend in a winding fashion to create something that just tugs at the ear.

The next track Obstacle 1 and its sequel, which comes later on in the album, Obstacle 2 are in my opinion the most quintessential Interpol tracks. The repetitive Joy Division style riffs, driving drums, intertwining guitar parts, jumpy bass, up-stroke chords high on the guitar’s neck that pierce through the wall of sound, groaning dark vocals and surreal abstract lyrics that tie all the various parts together in this gothic post-punk soundtrack perfect for walking through New York city late at night. That’s Interpol. And these two tracks (as well as most of the album) are them at their best.

NYC, the third track on the album, is both a touching ballad dedicated to New York city and also a self-deprecating confession about how the lead singer needs to take control of their life. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Under The Bridge or LCD Soundsystem’s New York I Love You. It also introduces us to what the album title means “You’ve supported me so long//It is up to me now//Turn on the bright lights”.

Jumping ahead in the track-listing another highlight is Stella Was A Diver and She Was Always Down. The song is a dramatic track. It probably (I say probably because I kind of question if anyone can ever truly understand an Interpol song) telling the story of a girl the narrator was sleeping with who committed suicide. The whole track is littered with lines that have double meanings which encrypt the story behind seemingly detached, random statements but if you pay attention you can string together a rough idea of the narrative — although part of what makes it so haunting is that its impossible to conclusively extrapolate the whole story. Even the titles carries cryptic meaning — “She was always down” is probably a reference to kinky sex, diving and a bad mental state. Some lines include: “She was all right ’cause the sea was so airtight, she broke away”, “At the bottom of the ocean she dwells”, “She went down down down there//down there for me”, “In a wave you say goodbye”. This cryptic writing really is a hall mark of Interpol but I think Stella Was A Diver and She Was Always Down really highlights how good they sometimes are at it.

The New on the other hand is a more relatable song. It tells the story of a relationship that falls apart not at anyone person’s fault but at mistakes made on both ends, the chorus (“I gave a lot to you// I take a lot from you too// You slave a lot from me// Guess you could say I gave you my edge”) just strikes as an incredibly somber and sober report of what went wrong and the whole story reaches an emotional climax as the narrator and his ex hook up again before an intense instrumental kicks in: “You’re looking alright tonight// I think we should go”. I think its probably one of my favorite songs ever.

Leif Erikson is the closing track of the album and a more perfect close could not have been chosen. Sonically, lyrically and thematically its confusing. It could be an optimistic ending but it also very well could be a depressing end. The final refrain to the song and the entire album is “She says brief things// Her love’s a pony// My love’s subliminal”. Its cryptic, surreal, confusing, open-ended, artsy and just a consistent and brilliant end to a brilliant album.

Listening to Interpol, especially their debut album (which blows everything else they have ever released out of the water), is about: learning to embrace the surreal, the abstract and the pretentious lyrics; drowning yourself in the deep thick complex textures of sound and walking through the city late at night ready to collapse while listening to them. If you can do those things, then Turn On The Bright Lights becomes a beautiful experience.

McGill ‘23, aspiring writer, shitty musician with a lot of opinions.