Examining Interpol’s Lyrics Ten Years After Turn on the Bright Lights


A work of art’s true meaning can take a while to be uncovered.

Think of the rich veins of wisdom, long threaded through our cultural bedrocks, that we mere mortals stumbled upon years, after their authors first brought them into the world: the economic allegory at the heart of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz; the homosexual yearning embedded in the chords of Schubert’s music; that extremely tiny penis drawn into the lower-left corner of the Mona Lisa (don’t you fucking act like you can’t see it).

It is with these things in mind that we look to Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, that seminal debut which Matador Records is reissuing this month.

See Also:
Interpol’s Our Love to Admire: Gorgeous, menacing nursery rhymes for insincere clubbers
Live: Interpol, Cat Power at MSG, 09.14.07

It has most of what any self-respecting fan or completist would expect of deluxe repackaging: a hardbound book of unreleased band photos, a second disc of demos and b-sides, a DVD filled with footage of their earliest gigs.

But this package is missing one thing. Paul Banks’s lyrics, long puzzled over on message boards, snickered at by detractors, and argued over by critics, have slowly, quietly, finally started to make sense, and Matador’s reissue represents an opportunity to reveal what some of those lines were all about.

From “Leif Erikson” – Her love’s a pony
Early interpreters (fools!) viewed this verse as Banks’s nod to the animal, a kind of marker for girlish capriciousness, the dawning of sexual awareness, and, more distantly, as a fantasy; the Pony represents the ultimate gift, one that all girls secretly wish to receive, not from some pimply kid who’s on his first car (and whose voice cracks whenever the topic of skinny-dipping comes up), but from their fathers.

Obviously, this is completely wrong.

Understanding Banks’s choice of words requires a more rigorous commitment to the song’s mise-en-scene. Earlier allusions to the jungle — I’ve been swinging all the time, I think it’s time to learn your way/ I picture you and me in the jungle, it will be okay — are in fact meant to place narrator and subject, and Banks’s fantasy, therefore, is a call for something truly radical: a merging of ape and pony into some kind of monkeyhorse creature. Banks’s vision for this super-animal remain unclear, though devotees remain vigilant in their watch for further clues.

From “Obstacle 2” – I feel like love is in the kitchen with a culinary eye
Like the Alps or the Himalayas, many great men have been thwarted in their attempts to navigate this passage. Some have positioned this line at the heart of a theory that Banks imagines love less as elemental force and more as something anthropomorphic, which would position him firmly within a classical tradition that extends back to the Greeks (It also gets us one step closer to understanding what Our Love to Admire is supposed to mean. Maybe.).

Others see this as a coded reference to former Banks flame Helena Christensen, a one-time supermodel whose obsession with food has been well-documented. Banks and Christensen began dating shortly after the release of Turn On the Bright Lights, making this theory less plausible in a factual sense (but, its supporters remind us, no less spiritually compelling).

But time will lift almost any fog, and the past 10 years have worked there magic here. The answer, of course, is that Paul Banks is obsessed with Joy Division. He may never admit it, but we know. We have always known.

From “Obstacle 2” – Because friends don’t waste wine when there’s words to sell
This felt to many like a reference to the plague of networking, one-upmanship and politicking that swept through New York indie rock after the Strokes put the city back on the map. Others ventured outside the confines of the text, highlighting the malevolent energy in the song’s bass line in pointing to this as the first evidence to the tensions that simmered between Banks and Interpol bassist Carlos D.

Today, scrubbed of intrigues, it can be appreciated for what it is: proof-positive that Paul Banks was obsessed with Slowdive.

From “Roland” – My friend’s a butcher, he has sixteen knives/ He carries them all over town/ At least he tries/ Oh look it stopped snowing
This obviously needs no explanation.

From “NYC” – The subway/ She is a porno
Easily the most cited, most puzzled-over couplet in the Banks oeuvre, it was long viewed as a succinct (if imperfect) attempt to encapsulate New York’s seething transit system.

Today, the prophetic quality of that line shines. Turn on the Bright Lights didn’t just define the New York City music scene — it presaged much of what lay in store for American culture: the deep, ongoing gloominess; the rise of timbre and atmosphere over melody in indie pop; people wearing suits. Banks understood that improvements in technology would make those ugly tubes cleaner, brighter, more efficient; we ignore the possibility that he understood the massive budgetary problems which would plague both at our peril. The subway, really and truly, is a porno.

The true lyrical giants — Bob Dylan, Charles Baudelaire, Too $hort — tend to do their best work in their 20s, when the lamps of passion burn their hottest. Today, we welcome Paul Banks into their esteemed company.