Before Interpol became the talk of Williamsburg, before all of the endless Joy Division comparisons, when Interpol was barely an idea in Daniel Kessler’s head, Paul Banks paid his dues in clubs in New York under the moniker Julian Plenti. Armed with just his voice and an acoustic guitar, it seemed that Banks’ solo material would be a far cry from Interpol’s propulsive songs. However with Julian Plenti…Is Skyscraper, Paul Banks debunks claims that Interpol is “just” a rhythm section band and makes a compelling case for his own strength as a singer and songwriter.
I feel compelled at this point to say that I came to this record with some apprehension. Turn on the Bright Lights bowled me over when I first heard it and Antics kept me similarly riveted. I held high expectations for them and though Our Love to Admire didn’t meet them, I still found the album to be solid work if not quite as potent as their past albums. My Interpol fandom probably should have dictated that I’d be excited to hear Paul Banks’ solo work, but I just wasn’t. Perhaps it was the vaguely pretentious pseudonym or the Sebastian Tellier-looking album cover. What it added up to was that what I loved most about Interpol was the music, the atmosphere crafted by the chemistry of all four members of the band. How could one member make something as good?
Julian Plenti…is Skyscraper is not an Interpol record, that’s for sure. Despite opening with the two most Interpol-like tracks on the album (“Only If You Run” and “Fun That We Have”), Paul Banks crafted a record that feels less urgent and has more space than Interpol records tend to contain. One of the most striking things about the album is that Banks’ singing sounds less strained. The flat near monotone is still there but Banks isn’t competing over the forceful music of Interpol, rather he sings in softer tones, almost docile…or as docile as a monotone can sound.
It must be said that the more Interpol-like songs end up being the most disappointing. Opener “Only If You Run” sounds like a warmed over Sunset Rubdown song mixed with Antics‘ “C’Mere.” “Fun That We Have” is almost annoyingly repetitive. What’s funny is that Banks’ minimal lyrics sounded great when surrounded by Daniel Kessler’s tenuous guitars, Carlos D’s sensuous bass and Sam Fogarino’s aggressive drumming, but here it’s still minimal, though not in the good way. Banks does better with the songs that veer away from Interpol’s sound. “Skyscraper” takes its time to get to actual lyrics and the eerie melody built around a piano and acoustic guitar is lovely mood music.
“Madrid Song” is a gorgeous, simple song that makes the most out of Banks’ strongly edited lyrics. It breathes, it ebbs and flows beautifully with just a few piano chords, strings samples and a looped recording of a woman talking. It’s on “Madrid Song” and “On the Esplanade” that Banks sounds more at ease and his delivery matches that. The slower songs are less restricted and tense and his minimal and repetitive lyrics sound more like poetry. It’s just too bad that these quite moments make up less than half of the album.
It’s clear that Paul Banks has immense talent as a musician; the music composed on Julian Plenti…is Skyscraper is often quite beautiful. The more meditative and atmospheric of the songs are truly a pleasure the listen to and it’s great to hear Banks’ lyrics and voice in a different context. Had the album been composed mostly of these songs, I’d feel more favorable to it. However, it was the safer tracks, the ones that nearly tread the same line that Interpol has that feel like a let down. They simply remind me too much of the band and make me miss them. I respect Paul Banks a great deal and it is clear that he is a formidable presence in Interpol – not “just” a rhythm section band any more! That said, while my experience with Julian Plenti…is Skyscraper was overall an enjoyable one, it nonetheless didn’t quite convince me of Banks’ strengths as a solo artist, but rather it further confirmed my view of Interpol as a truly potent band.