"Here comes success/ over my hill," sang Iggy Pop in his song "Success," the snide, slightly sarcastic takedown of the fame monster that opens the second side of Lust for Life. "I have succeeded/ I won't compete for long," sings Interpol vocalist Paul Banks in their song "Success," the morose overture that opens their fourth — and, possibly, final — album, Interpol. If he sounds less-than-thrilled, it's for good reason. Three years ago, it was Interpol headlining Madison Square Garden, on a bill rounded out by Cat Power and Liars, riding a wave of critical adulation and commercial adoration to a major label contract, only to find the whole thing withering the instant they got it in their clutches — success bounding right over their hill and on to the next one. The next one being located in Montreal.
From this distance, it's hard to remember that there was a moment when Interpol were controversial. At a time when indie rock still treasured modesty and restraint, they had the audacity to turn up at New York City afterparties, allegedly snorting whatever was available, boasting expensive haircuts and possessing an actually drive to succeed, instead of just stumble ass-backwards into marginal acclaim. It actually pissed people off that they had the gall to wear suits. Even Death Cab for Cutie — Interpol's pace car on the road to superstardom — seemed to arrive at their lofty perch accidentally, the nice guys with pure hearts who got by on virtue and good intentions over Interpol's high style and questionable motives. Death Cab's mantra was "I need you so much closer." Interpol's was "You're so cute when you're sedated."
Lost in the hubbub was the group's greatest skill: their ability to sculpt stark, sepulchral melodies from the barest of elements. Naysayers insisted on comparing the group to Joy Division but, in truth, the best moments of the dark, majestic Turn on the Bright Lights bear a strong resemblance to Boy-era U2: the lockstep guitars, the swooping basslines, the dry-bones percussion. Listen to the intro's of "I Will Follow" and "Obstacle 1" back to back and see if one doesn't sound like the older, ornerier cousin of the other. The difference, though, is that Interpol never quite figured out how to scale up their sound to reach the cheap seats. Their sole album for major label Capitol — underrated — maintained the band's severe aesthetic without expanding it, still frontloading a bushel of hooks ("The Heinrich Maneuver" boasted the biggest chorus of their career), but offering little promise that the group were capable of speeds other than short and acute.
And so now comes the Interpol the naysayers in 2001 have been waiting for, an Interpol with melted wings and adjusted expectations, an Interpol who lost the map on their way up the mountain and are learning to content themselves with modest vistas. That they replaced high-glam bassist Carlos D after the album's completion with indie lifer Dave Pajo is symbolism so spot-on you couldn't orchestrate it if you tried. They're not even wearing the suits anymore. If early Interpol was all about high-fashion indulgence, Interpol 2010 — humbled and sober — is about the consequences thereof. Banks ends the first song howling, "Somebody make me say 'no,'" and that theme of denial surfaces over and over across the record's 10 songs. In "Lights," he's pleading, "Please police me, I want you to police me," and, a few lines later tellingly moans, "Capitol ways/ teach me to grieve." The band's name is disintegrating on the album cover and the band themselves are disintegrating throughout. The last song, titled — wait for it! — "The Undoing" finds Banks lamenting "I was chased and thrilled and altered/ chasing my damage" as funereal synths swell up behind him.
It's also the most overtly tuneful the record ever gets. At long last, Interpol's violent, herky-jerk tarantella has finally settled into full rigor mortis. Everything is low and boxed-in: the loping guitar that slithers slowly in the background of "Memory Serves," the low-cruising vocal melody of the laconic "Safe Without," the punch-drunk piano that totters on its heel in the shadows of "Try it On." The record is more about mood than moments: thick, funeral fog hangs over each stillborn composition, and where the early records stood tall and imposing — as regal and threatening as vampires — Interpol mostly lurks in the shadows. It's art rock by way of art school, long sighs and grand proclamations nestled deep in slow-curling instrumentation. Daniel Kessler has, accordingly, muted his poison-arrow guitars, favoring long bands of sound over rapid-fire attacks. The notorious — and effective — downstroke-downstroke-downstroke aesthetic has evolved into something more gradual and symphonic. He's barely there at all in "Summer Well," peeling off a few small apostrophes while relinquishing most of the melody to plinking piano. He's not shoving the songs along so much as gently encouraging them. As "Always Malaise" eases into its icy minor-key chorus Banks confesses, almost in response, "All I can do is what I can/ That's the man I am."
And so maybe this is what comes with readjusted expectations. Interpol doesn't swoop, it glides, letting each song simmer slowly until it gradually fades out. Despite the fact that each composition is carefully plotted and clearly premeditated, there's something about Interpol that feels undeniably chastened. The lyric that best describes the record is one they didn't write: this is the sound of settling.