Turn On The Bright Lights is just one of those records for me. When it hit – ten years ago on Aug. 19 – I was at the age when hearing something you really liked mattered the most. I became sort of obsessed with it. The leadup of anticipation and ensuing payoff of seeing the band play at Kansas City’s Madrid Theater was so impactful to me, at the time, that I have no doubt I could accurately detail the interior of the Madrid even though I haven’t stepped foot inside of it since (Calla opened. God, remember Calla?) I just now pulled the setlist (give or take one or two songs) from the crevices of my mind. Since Interpol was just picking up steam at the time when we saw them — it was pretty rare for an East Coast band gaining traction to make a Midwest stop this early along — you felt that, in the arrogant way of teenagerdom, that you were on to something that others weren’t on to you and that made you smarter than those people. You know how that goes? Turn On The Bright Lights showed me how that goes.
The album itself is, to this day, an awesomely wellworn brick of incisive guitar rock, an assured, confident, risk-taking debut that the band hasn’t lived up to since. As far as the now-fractured group is concerned, the interplay between guitarist Daniel Kessler and bassist Carlos D was at its pinnacle, building this infinitely replayable groove that threads Turn On The Bright Lights together. And not to completely throw Paul Bank’s brooding babble – more on that later, as it deserves its own section — under the bus, but that’s the most timeless aspect of Turn On The Bright Lights, just how locked in those ends are on songs like the chugging storm surge “PDA” and the morose “Stella Was A Diver She Was Always Down.” The “Obstacle” songs – “Obstacle 1” and “Obstacle 2,” ya dig – were different sides of the same book, and given that the songs are structured pretty similar, I’d like to think of them as tonesetters for the respective halves of TOTBL.
Banks’s own bald lyricism – “My best friend’s a butcher / He has sixteen knives / He carries them all over the place, at least he tries / Oh look! It stopped snowing” -– was fun to wade in (even though now I can see anybody over the age of 25 hearing Banks’ lyrics and being all like, “Ugh, fucking young people and their fake problems). I remember summoning that melodramatic “Stel-A-AHHHH” many a time in the high school hallway. At the Madrid show, another audience member sharply corrected a friend’s announcement of what song the band was playing, barking “It’s “The New!,” which instantly became an inside joke amongst my friends. My high school band rehearsed “Roland” for a battle of the bands, eventually choosing to play a medley that prominently involved the theme from Happy Gilmore instead. For a young person, it just felt there was a lot to latch on to, all backed by the noodling, hypnotic dark guitar tornado that Interpol created. Turn On The Bright Lights is one of those records for me.
I remember the album catching a lot of flak for being too sadsack, too derivative, too trite; Turn On The Bright Lights was definitely the recipient of the snotty “I liked this band when they were called Joy Division” served up by the world’s caste of spoilsport older brothers. But you know? I used this record to get into Joy Division. So it goes! Objectively, Interpol hasn’t necessarily aged well, in general; the well-received Antics avoided the sophomore slump before interest fell off a cliff with the erratic Our Love To Admire, whose “The Heinrich Maneuver” now scores a cheesy AT&T commercial. Banks’ melodramatic bent, a pattern which you couldn’t really decipher whether he was being serious or off-handed or ironic or frumpy or whatever when Turn On The Bright Lights first arrived, seems to have spilled over and ink-stained his boring Julian Plenti project.
Turn On The Bright Lights is a soundtrack. I think you can look at it as silly now, but maybe that’s just part of the allure, that kind of hammy, maybe empty-fisted vagueness that makes some rock so memorable and personal to the listener. Interpol described the plight of Stella (whose fall down a manhole reminded her of her “scuba days,” obviously), offered me 200 couches where I could sleep tonight when just a loveseat would have served perfectly O.K., assured me that New York Cares and ascribed all sorts of other kinds of moody mannequins with their masterwork, Turn On The Bright Lights. Paul Banks bragged about his friend severing segments, probably just because “severing segments” has a nice ring to it. Secretly, I liked that.