It’s hard to imagine what spurred the density and gloom of Turn on the Bright Lights, an album that, in retrospect, sounds like a popular band reacting to massive overexposure; its masterful statement of bruised withdrawal begged to divide a large fanbase, not create one. There was nothing about Interpol’s self-contained, visionary debut that might have suggested their subsequent eyebrow-raising catapult to fame, particularly given their aversion to the traditional single format. Perhaps Paul Banks’ lucid expression of discontent and impending dread spoke to an increasingly frustrated audience inundated by a generalized threat. Or maybe Interpol’s popularity is simply a case of viscerally powerful music confounding formulas of public taste, breaking through purely on the basis of songwriting merit. Either way, Bright Lights set an immeasurably high mark to follow, and its popularity has ensured equally high stakes: If the band stumbles, their humiliation will be very public.
Fortunately, the members of Interpol understand what other bands take for granted: Careers aren’t necessarily made or broken by second albums alone, and an ideal follow-up needn’t engage the perceived potential of a defining debut or consciously redefine a pre-established sound in order to be effective. Redefinition, in particular, is a non-issue for Interpol, because one of the most enduring pleasures of their first album is its timeless singularity. Accordingly, it has been well understood that Antics wasn’t going to be, nor could it be, Bright Lights 2. Bootleg versions of new material— notably the live recordings of “Narc” and “Length of Love” that leaked last summer— didn’t suggest a radically altered aesthetic or faceless repetition, nor does Antics deliver either. Interpol avoid common sophomore pitfalls because they refuse to engage the immense weight that surrounds this release, and their tenuous position between shrewd self-consciousness and diversionary costume changing informs this album’s openness and plasticity.
Antics exudes a preceding aura of heaviness— even the packaging is heavy; the album’s cryptic liner notes consist of little more than stark grayscale photos and epigrammatic Morse code spelling out bits of song titles (“Length”, “Narc”, “Cruise”, “Exit”, respectively). An image from the band’s debut appears on the first single, “Slow Hands”, and becomes a representative metaphor for the album as a whole: After reflecting on the aftermath of a soured relationship, Banks takes the “weights” described in Bright Lights’ “Obstacle 1” from his “little heart” and projects them onto the woman who presumably put them there to begin with. Musically, however, the song is far removed from the layered density of Interpol’s former material, exhibiting pristine, unmuddied production and a chorus (“We spies/ We slow hands/ You put the weights all around yourself”) that slithers and stomps with post-punk dance-floor swagger. Similarly, Antics casts off the weight of advance hype, stewing anticipation, and unreasonable expectations, and wisely distinguises itself as a strong collection of singles rather than as an immaculately cohesive album. And, where Interpol were once synonymous with emotive desolation, they here opt for an atmosphere of poignant resignation.
Opener “Next Exit” is immediately jarring; a tranquilized doo-wop organ progression and spare percussion announce a very different band. It is explicitly clear that Interpol have changed, from the band’s more casual tone (“We ain’t going to the town/ We’re going to the city/ Gonna track this shit around”) to new mixing techniques: Carlos D’s bass and Daniel Kessler’s guitar are relatively hushed in the mix to make room for Banks’ underscored vocals, allowing him a range of expression previously unexplored and buoying the band’s newfound pop leanings with lyrical eloquence. His vocals on tracks like “Narc” soar where they were once buried in the impermeable fog of their surroundings, and many who found his delivery in the past to be occasionally monotonous (company that includes Banks himself) will find his melodic range here to be a welcome change of pace.
Although most songs evince a clear shift to singles territory, a natural progression of the band’s sound is evident. “Evil” employs a Pixies-esque bassline and upbeat rhythm section to counterbalance its ambiguously bleak lyrical themes. The band demonstrates judicious restraint on “Narc”, relegating a potentially overbearing blanket of synth strings and organ to a peripheral role while punching up Kessler’s crisp guitar lines and Carlos D’s almost imperceptibly fluid bass work. The syncopated funk bassline and disco-pop rhythm of “Length of Love” initially seem to be at odds with the song’s lush orchestration, but these counter-intuitive touches add a dynamic element to the limited confines of the song’s composition. The band hasn’t lost its knack for exploration and epic construction, though; “Take You on a Cruise”, “Not Even Jail”, and “Public Pervert” steep the album’s middle section in the kind of dark theatricality that distinguished their debut, while the expansive “A Time to Be So Small”, with its deliberate pacing and depiction of “cadaverous mobs,” concludes Antics with unsettling macabre.
Though Interpol couldn’t be expected to surpass their previous heights, it’s difficult to imagine a savvier or more satisfying second step. But the real revelation is that the band has wisely ignored a shortsighted perception of their career which dictates that where Bright Lights was an audacious plunge from a great height, Antics is the crucial landing. Even on those terms the band has succeeded. However, their liberation of form emphasizes the fact that, in the grand scheme of Interpol’s career, this is only one in a series of great, if not Great, albums.Antics shows Interpol shedding the weight of their accumulated baggage and (hopefully) staying a while.