When it comes to solo projects Paul Banks has previous. There’s his turn as DJ Fancypants, dabbling with hip-hop for starters. Then there’s Julian Plenti, the name under which he released his first solo album and his stage name before joining Interpol. Clearly Banks enjoys the smokescreen and flexibility that a pseudonym allows.
Working under his own name raises a few questions. Has Banks has decided to finally let the protection of a nom de plume slide and let his audience in? Or is it perhaps that his voice is so recognisable that any attempt to be somebody else would be relatively ineffective? Whatever the reason for releasing this album under his own name, Banks is careful when handling anything of a personal nature.
Certainly there are moments when these songs appear to be from the heart, but Banks’ lyrics are often crafted in such a way as to distort and obscure. “Now and then I can see the truth above the lies,” he sings on opening track The Base. Whether he’s directly empathising with his listeners is unclear, but as an explanation as to the content of the album, it is fairly apposite. Musically, The Base meanwhile is awash with danger. A relentless shifting bass figure feels distinctly sinister as Banks relates his conversation with “The Base”. There are brief, lighter moments for the choruses, but the transmissions from The Base skew the song towards the darkness, and Banks exists crooning under an authoritarian shadow.
A number of these songs defer to an exterior force in order to excuse or explain behaviour. The David Bowie-esque dark wave pop of Over My Shoulder sees Banks referring to “phantoms” nestled in the background. The strange loping beats of Another Chance switch back and forth between a light skip and a grinding thump. Over the top, the protagonist offers up excuses, claiming that he deserves a do-over. “There’s something wrong with my brain” he says, “it makes me lose control”. “Sometimes people fuck up” he pleads as the song reaches an unnerving crescendo. Whether these excuses are related to a real or invented medical condition is left open, but there’s little doubt that this unpleasant character isn’t in control.
The seething New Wave of Paid For That explores similar territory, with Banks addressing the various clashing aspects of his personality. Once again, there’s an unnerving slant, but the grandeur of the refrain makes Banks’ suffering, if that’s indeed what it is, seem almost worthwhile. Young Again sees Banks at the mercy of time and looking back to his youth. “I’m young again – thanks a lot, rah rah!” he states with a deliciously sardonic tone. Most would jump at the chance to be young again; not Banks, his is an almost sarcastic response which in musical terms (and lyrically) is not a million miles away from Stephen Jones‘ more acerbic moments.
I’ll Sue You also takes an unusual line and seems to be a kind of bizarre mix of New Wave, Disco, and a sex-chat line for frustrated lawyers. It certainly sets the precedent for songs for legal fetishists. There is perhaps only one missed opportunity on Banks, in the form of Lisbon. As an instrumental, it is perfectly functional but it seems to have been initially written with lyrics in mind. Something about it appears unfinished, which is a shame as it provides a hollow centre to the album.
Banks then is a strange record. It is personal without actually being personal. It sounds a little like Interpol in places (mainly thanks to Banks’ unmistakable voice) without being Interpol. Yet it manages to entertain and intrigue, and suggests that there’s a lot more to Paul Banks than perhaps even he might care to acknowledge.