As Interpol’s lead singer, Paul Banks was known for casually cryptic lyrics, “We can cap the old times make playing only logical harm. We can top the old lines clay-making that nothing else will change.” Within them though were physical sentiments that managed to speak directly to us in spite of the would-be confusion. This sentiment has created some veil over Banks himself, and his ever-changing moniker reflects that. As Interpol died down, Banks released his first solo LP under the name Julian Plenti. This summer, nearly three years later, Banks dropped the aptly titled Julian Plenti Lives… EP but this time credited to his own name. The EP was an odd release, and it was meant as a lead up to Banks, the heavily eponymous re-debut of a solo LP. Odder yet, it hardly speaks at all to the album.
It’s surprisingly easy to see what all of this switching around and personas means in the context of Banks (the LP, that is). This may be the first time that we’re seeing something different out of him. Interpol is known for its darkened rock revival sounds, and Banks’s first Julian Plenti release did little to differentiate itself. It may have been a bit more loose, a bit more in the brightness of the streetlights that dotted Turn on the Bright Lights’s cityscapes, but altogether it was a release that was as much a part of Interpol as it was apart of Interpol. That sound is almost altogether absent from Banks.
Even as someone hoping for more classic Interpol sound, it’s almost immediately obvious that this is a strength of the album. When we hear the would-be Interpol of Julian Plenti or even Interpol’s fourth album, we’re hardly fooled. We realize (yet again) that that spark may never be relit. So to hear something so separate as what Banks delivers on Banks is refreshing, even if not satisfying. What carries through is that signature thumping bass line of Interpol’s that keeps it alive and dark. Around that however are new worlds, classic guitars, shimmering cymbals. Banks vocals have, by choice or not, seemingly changed with age. He’s trying more, and that removes that edge we love. On the other hand, this new style has been present for a while now, and Banks has finally learned how to tap into it to best harmonize with his music.
Banks, for all its differences, is still easy enough to see as an evolution for anyone following along Banks’s career. His interests are present. There are guitar lines with a heavy focus, sudden breaks and rises, ways that he moves his voice. The oddities of Julian Plenti Lives… seem to reveal themselves here as tamer interests of Banks. It’s never so obvious, but Banks seems to be taking beats and themes from hip-hop or westerns and co-opting them into his own repertoire of sounds. Where on the EP it was overbearing and tired, here they’re clever movements that fit neatly inside of each track. There’s a certain sense of creation here, as though Banks had a purpose for each track. Lisbon is absent of vocals and could easily be scoring something. At times on Banks we have sampled vocals, though not quite as the flashy centerpiece that you’d find on a Kanye track. Rather, on tracks like Another Chance, the sample (at least seemingly so) is transformed into the track’s lead vocals.
It works well, better than we should expect here. The album doesn’t stay beyond its welcome, and each track is modestly different in a way that keeps us interested in a legitimate way. On the other hand, no track can really stand on its own in a major way, nor can they be said to form something grander as a whole. Banks seems to attempt to recreate the magic of his former lyrics, but it doesn’t quite come together. Instead we get similes like, “You only hold me as the canyon holds the stream,” repeated several times over when it’s hardly a strong enough idea to be played through once. This speaks to the broader success of the emotional content here: ideas are present, but there’s no insight to be found.
For an old fan, Banks is a surprisingly enjoyable listen for what is otherwise an unexciting release. While other middle of the road albums tend to have their highs and lows, Banks instead presents a constant quality, which works in the album’s favor. We’re never bored, just never enthralled either. Moreover, it shows that Banks still has something to show us, and he hasn’t yet lost what it takes to make a smart song. Whether it’ll come back again into something that can stand close to Bright Lights is hard to say. It doesn’t exactly seem likely - Bright Lights was an album of a time, a place, and an atmosphere - but Banks, the LP, puts forth the notion that Banks, the artist, may still surprise us.