Identity’s a tricky thing in the annals of rock music. Whether David Bowie’s chameleonic mindfucks in the ‘70s, Dylan going electric, or Lou Reed’s perpetual metamorphoses, rock thrives on persistent flux in self-presentation.
Where does Paul Banks fit into this equation? As Interpol’s frontman, he’s largely been a cipher. While certainly not lacking in charisma, albeit in a steely and often sardonic manner (his dry, wicked sense of humor is largely lost in interviews), he’s often polarized and confounded listeners and critics alike.
Banks’ first ostensibly solo album found him assuming the alter ego of Julian Plenti. He jettisoned the nom de plume for this semi-eponymous album, Banks, credited to Paul Banks (as was its preceding EP). And where 2009’s Julian Plenti Is…Skyscraper was culled largely from songs pre-dating Interpol (as far back as the mid-’90s), Banks – with all new material written in the past few years (with the exception of “Summertime Is Coming”) – is a vivid documentation of Banks in the here and now, and his most abjectly personal work to date.
“I suppose I wanted to simplify this time around,” he explains. “Julian Plenti was something that I had to do, but once it was done, I didn't need to hold on to it. I didn't want the burden of shtick for these songs. If anything, I'm trying to draw attention away from the notion of a persona this time. I'm just making music and hoping to let it speak for itself.”
But aside from the peripheral aspects germane to every artist, listening to Banks is a revelation, a catharsis. From the pulsating opener “The Base,” which finds Banks catatonically crooning, “Now and then I can see the truth above the lies/Now and then, oh, I feel those beauties this life belies.” It’s one of his most disarmingly direct lyrics to date, heartfelt in a barbed manner far removed from his often detached anomie with Interpol.
“I do think that in some sense there are more direct lyrics on this album, and there is some purging and venting happening,” says Banks. “I suppose it was therapeutic. ‘Over My Shoulder’ has earnest intimations as well as some spiritual mumbo-jumbo. All of which comes from an honest place with no snark. I haven't made much of an effort to be clever here. Just to be honest about my mood and perhaps to confess a little.”
The quixotic, wistful “Young Again” is a standout, a gorgeous number that kicks off with a delicate, deceptively simple yet transfixing guitar figure, before blooming into a dense, orchestrated chorus that finds Banks ambivalently bellowing, “Because I’m young again/Thanks a lot/I feel young again/Rah Rah.”
He explains, “The feeling there is one more of elation than melancholy. The lyrics depict an adolescent mind-set. Crazy absolutes that I used to feel when I was a teenager — ‘jobs are disgraceful’ — and as the lyrics came to me, I was reveling in feeling that headspace again. And in another way, it was perhaps a kind of epiphany, a sort of, ‘Wait a second, right now I truly give zero fucks what anyone has to say about me. I'm like Bender from The Breakfast Club’ which was how I felt when I was 18. That headspace doesn't last. But it felt good for those ten minutes when I was writing the song...and when I sing it, it always feels good.”
The two instrumental numbers are crucial ingredients to this gestalt puzzle. The elegiac “Lisbon,” which sounds like Mogwai in subdued mode, is a welcome come-down from the invective gravitas of “Young Again,” while “Another Chance” is a schizophrenic, near chamber-pop ditty, with a contrite monologue from Banks’ friend Sebastian Ischer’s film Black Out, as the protagonist pleads, “There’s something wrong with my brain” as if it’s simultaneously a plea for forgiveness and a scathing personal indictment.
This affinity for found sounds and borrowed dialogue is evident throughout Banks. He says, “I use found sounds in all my recordings. Inspired from hip hop. Using audio snippets from disparate sources instantly gives a song an eerie depth, transcendence. I can't sum it up, and I can't get enough.”
Perhaps the most visceral, invective and immediate song on Banks is “Paid for That,” with a sinewy guitar line recalling Folk Implosion’s “Natural One,” who are actually name-checked in the lyrics (“Changed by Folk Implosion/When I was 17”) until it metamorphoses into a full-blown cacophonous chorus redolent of Nirvana circa In Utero, as Banks biliously wails, “I paid for that/And now you’ll pay me back.”
“I referenced Folk Implosion because it's honest,” says Banks. “One song by the Boo Radleys, ‘Upon 9th and Fairchild,’ influenced me more than any band or genre that is ever mentioned in relation to my work. Shit, so did ‘Babe I'm Gonna Leave You’ or ‘Nights in White Satin’ or ‘Riders on the Storm.’ But I'm tired of caring what people think I actually consider an influence. And ‘Paid For That’ is my rage song, kinda my way of getting past all the frustration. I almost took that name-check out because of fear of people harping on it. But I left it in for the kids growing up today, and for the kid in me.”