On Leif Erikson
Reflection on Interpol's song Leif Erikson from their 2002 album Turn On The Bright Lights. Published October 2016 in Bilkent News.
My earbuds are uncomfortable and the marble digs into the backs of my knees where I sit, sprawled in front of the Bilkent library in an attempt to enjoy the biting quiet. Two laughing women pass me, carefree arms slung around each other’s waists, their breath fogging slightly in the crisp night air. Their steps echo sharply off the stone-laid ground, in time with the dull beat thumping into my skull; I am listening to the opening bars of Interpol’s tremulous masterpiece, “Leif Erikson.”
“She says it helps with the lights out,” croons a male voice in my ears. This is lead singer Paul Banks, sounding very tired, very raw—“her rabid glow is like braille to the night.” It’s quite a dark song, the words cold and haunting, and I feel the low tune of the bass track thrum in my chest. Library air filters out through the vents across from me, warm and yielding to my chilled skin; this song and this smell are familiar and comforting, and I feel their old embrace draw out my exhaustion.
“We’ll collect those lonely parts and set them down,” Paul promises; “you come here to me!” The steady rhythm pounds in my mouth and throat, his lonely voice calling out to the darkness—it is so awry, so honest. Carlos Dengler has his deft hands on bass, stroking and stroking the strings until they purr out a full-body tremor; the sound is vivid, liquid, turning the song almost wild. The music breathes along with me, each note struck with an almost muted violence, an attempt to let out some pent-up tenderness. The sound reverberates, makes the darkness itself into something distantly alive, subtly yearning for another body.This is how the song feels, but what is it really about? The lyrics sound like the callings-out of a reclusive lover as he tries to find his way back to his partner, to make her respond in kind. “I’ve been swinging all this time, think it’s time to learn your way” sounds like a tired concession. “I picture you and me together in the jungle, it will be okay.” It is a journey to understanding; “all the people that you’ve loved,” the man says softly, “they’re all bound to leave some keepsakes.” He’s telling her that it’s all right, their separation and seclusion is all right, that “we can take some time, teach each other to reciprocate.” This lonely sentiment of the forlorn, yearning man and his partially lost lover is a common theme in Interpol’s music, but in no song does it feel so explicit and consuming as it does in “Leif Erikson.”
This is enough poetry, I think, pressing my back more firmly against the wall. The cool air reminds me of the first time I heard this song, sitting across from a backlit window in November, the opening chords resounding through the room; it had been a transforming experience, a sharp jolt that made every nerve stand to attention. A particular comment on the YouTube video still sticks in my memory, four years later: “This song reminds me of cold winter nights in Chicago waiting for the train.” Bilkent is not much like Chicago, and it is barely winter, but sitting here like this I feel the same bone-deep sensation of expectant isolation, of longing unspoken in solitude. “She says brief things, her love’s a pony,” Banks cries. “My love’s subliminal.”
Recognizing love. It should be trivial, and to some people it is. My father once told me that love is unmistakable, never obscure, that it reveals itself inevitably in its own quiet way. I remember Anne Sexton’s words, “Love and a cough cannot be concealed,” and wonder how she died. “Even a small cough. Even a small love.” What was it that killed her? It seems too cold to just say it was neurosis. It seems too trite and romantic to put it down to a subliminal love.
I’ve been sitting in silence for a while now: the track has ended. A few meters away someone lights a cigarette, and my eyes follow its dusky red light and the blushing warmth of a faraway mouth. The familiar first few bars of Interpol’s “Untitled” start up. I stretch my stiff legs and rise slowly to walk back home, where I will look for some silence, and write about love songs and cigarettes.