As a craftsman of declarative sentences, Interpol frontman Paul Banks is oblique enough to run for president next month. “We have 200 couches where you can sleep tonight,” he sang somewhat famously in “PDA,” the New York band’s indie hit from their 2002 debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, one song after branding the subway a porno and two after describing—well, not describing, but noticing—you stabbing yourself in the neck.
On Antics, Interpol’s very fine second album, Banks flatters humans whom I presume to be the ponytailed young women staffing those tiny clothing stores in Nolita thus: “So, baby, make it with me in preparation for tonight.” (Confusing because what sort of wild night counts sex as a ramp-up?) “Would you like to be my missus and in future with child?” (Nutty because it wasn’t one of Joaquin Phoenix’s lines in The Village.) “You’re making people’s lives feel less private.” (Complicated because it sounds sweet, but also like an e-mail to John Ashcroft.)
Banks’s sideways lyricism is a good thing for indie rock, a form whose poetry of bullshit has, since the reign of Black Francis and Stephen Malkmus, hardened into meaningless, dispassionate shtick. I like a little mystery in my sex-and-the-city, a predilection the singer happily indulges—whether the result of a carefully honed way with words or last-minute Microsoft Word cutting-and-pasting, I couldn’t care less. (I lean toward the former, though, since Banks can blow away the ab-ex fog when he wants to. “You make me want to pick up a guitar and celebrate the myriad ways that I love you,” he announces in Antics‘ zippy lead single, “Slow Hands,” whose video restages Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” as a gloomy Prada ad.)
Yet as Fred Durst once opined, a chocolate starfish is nothing without hot-dog-flavored water, and what makes Antics such an improvement over Bright Lights is how capable Interpol have become at complementing Banks’s lovely ambiguity with an increasingly precise post-punk throb. “Slow Hands” aside, Antics is pretty slow for a Nü York indie-rock record, but it doesn’t drag. Not at all, actually: Opener “Next Exit” begins with a dreamy organ drone, then drummer Sam Fogarino cranks up the drumbeat from the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and guitarist Daniel Kessler lays in a creepy-luau slide-guitar line, as Banks moans about making “this place a heart to be a part of again.” In “Length of Love” they goose a groove as metronomic as one of the Hives’ with hints of restrained white-shoe funk. And “A Time to Be So Small” justifies the Cure comparisons lobbed at the band, evoking a bottomless melancholy with one of those descending minor-key chord changes Robert Smith writes to keep himself in oversize dress shirts. These little musical gestures work to concretize Banks’s idea-feelings, and since he nearly always abjures straight-up imagery, his bandmates offer it instead.
Usually that means trebly, spindly guitar parts tumbling forth like ice into a glass. Though Fogarino displays an admirable enthusiasm for propulsive disco beats on the disc’s rockers, and bassist Carlos D steals “Evil” ‘s show with a bouncy line he stole from Krist Novoselic, Kessler might be Antics‘ secret star. None of the other chops-averse autodidacts in Interpol’s cohort have figured out how to play warm and cool at the same time like he does. A chops-averse autodidact myself, I won’t try to explain his technique. But just try listening to the way the guitars in “Narc” swarm around Banks’s vocal, buffeting it while simultaneously buffering it from its own force. Or listen to how the dilapidated sock-hop doo-wop line Kessler unreels in “Public Pervert” enacts Banks’s desire to “resuscitate the fading sounds of your life.”
It’s called synergy, and if Banks’s closed-circuit vernacular cultivates an auteurist mythology the frontman might well appreciate, Interpol achieve it on Antics, perhaps better than any other of this city’s groups of closed-circuit white guys. They’ve got the sound down; now they just have to hang onto their context.