One of my favorite songs is “Roland” by Interpol. It’s the ninth track on their debut studio album, Turn on the Bright Lights, and is quite possibly lyrically one of the strangest songs I have ever seen … that works.
Part of that is almost certainly Paul Banks’ singing style — which draws from Joy Division’s Ian Curtis’ bass-backed baritone — but is simultaneously stubbornly hopeful in a way that Curtis, who left his demons in his lyrics, never was.
Let’s take a look at how this plays out in their lyrics, shall we?
My best friend’s a butcher and he has sixteen knives
He carries them all over town — at least he tries
There is no real poetry in this opening couplet, is there? Nothing there to indicate it’s meant to be sung rather than spoken. But that is the point: this sounds like something the barfly next to you might say, and then you swing in because this has the ring of a good story. And, as if to set the scene, we get the following lyric — seemingly out of nowhere:
Oh look, it stopped snowing
The bent is getting increasingly conspiratorial. By directing your attention away from the story they’ve started, they’re whetting your appetite. (Incidentally, this sets time as well as place: it’s the middle of winter.)
My best friend’s from Poland and, um, he has a beard
Now we’re getting some more details about their best friend — namely, that he’s a Polish hipster. The second part of the lyric, set off by the spoken halt, is also curious. It seems almost as if they’re forcing a rhyme, but they haven’t had a lyric that ends with a word that rhymes with “beard”.
But they caught him with his case in a public place
That is what he had feared
Oooh, now things are getting juicy! Notice the internal rhyme between “case” and “place” — you’ve been completely suckered in, and you need to know what happens next. Also note that we have a rhyme for “beard” — “feared”. Putting the forced rhyme before the natural rhyme is unorthodox, to say the least.
He severed segments so secretly — you like that?
I like the alliteration in the first part (so much so that I always mentally insert “so” even if it isn’t in the lyric book). Ending on the query — you like that? — increases the conspiratorial bent to the song.
Incidentally, why is a butcher “severing segments so secretly” anyway? Isn’t a butcher’s job description essentially, well, “severing segments” with sharp knives? Methinks this Roland isn’t butchering critters he’s supposed to be butchering … but that is only ever hinted at in the lyrics, and hinted at here.
He always took the time to speak with me and I liked him for that
He was growing on me
He was growing on me
This lyric has a kludgy feel — more natural English should be talk to me — but, more importantly is the bit of emotional information Banks has allowed. Roland, our possibly serial-killer be-bearded Polish butcher, was Banks’ best friend because … he always took the time to speak with him? Also, didn’t Roland started out as Banks’ best friend … and now he’s just growing on him?
This is a clever subversion, and marks a deeper theme to the song: that Banks is lonely. And this is also what I mean by the difference between Banks’ voice and Curtis’. Ian Curtis’ lyrics suggest someone who felt apart from the world, rather than a part of it. But here, Paul Banks uses lyrics that intimately tie him to another person while at the same time subverting that established intimacy. We see this all the time in Interpol’s lyrics. Oftentimes songs will be subtly dedicated with names either in the lyrics or in the song title: Rosemary in “Evil”, Stella in “Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down”, and so on.
“Roland” also has another device — an unusual one for Interpol — and that is allusion. Roland, of course, is just not implied to be Banks’ best friend’s name: it’s also the name of the Frankish knight from The Song of Roland, the French national epic. Nor is the name Polish: in fact, it derives from Hruodland, a Germanic compound name meaning “famous land”. (Other examples of Germanic compound names include Richard, Robert, Roger, and Baldwin.)
So, all told, we have all the ingredients for a good song, all implied — narrative, emotional weight, and even more subtle elements such as allusion, all in a compact one-verse song.
Was this a good article? Do you like the idea of me bludgeoning a song’s lyrics to death? Do you have any ideas for other songs I ought to bludgeon to death? Leave a comment!