By: Marlee Billiter
There’s one song I will never forget; every lyric poised to emotionally damaging semantics, a piece that’s honestly not that big of a deal, yet for some reason, it approached me as a masterpiece.
This is a subjective breakdown of a song seeming to have no real meaning to it, or a meaning so misconstrued it’s difficult to locate; either way, this is ‘Leif Erikson’ by Interpol, everyone.
Interpol is an early 2000’s alternative/indie rock band originating from Manhattan, New York. Their music has become one of my favorites this year. They share a vibe similar to Joy Division with lead singer Paul Bank’s monotone voice. The style choices they’ve taken throughout the development of their discography have been incredible. Starting with their debut album, Turn On The Bright Lights, which became one of the top albums of the 2000’s with beautiful lyricism and melodies, including ‘Leif Erikson’ as the outro.
I love the sound of melancholy music. Not the obvious depressing sound, but when attentiveness to lyricism gives way to passionate sentiment–creativity disguised by simple expression.
For starters, the title was forged from absurdism. Interpol’s lead singer and guitarist Paul Banks notes the isolation of the keyboard to Pitchfork in 2003. If you single it out, “there’s a quality to it which someone commented was viking-esque. Like if you were watching a film, you could see the galleon approaching the coast, the f–ing vikings peering over the edge or whatever, and then I just said, ‘Oh, Leif Erikson,’ and I was really happy that everyone could live with it, because for me, it’s like absurdist.” Instead of using a lyric or giving away any sort of tone within the piece–like the majority of other songs–they instead chose something with no correlation.
Absurdity in music bridges artistry.
Banks stated, “It seems more arbitrary to take a lyric and make it your title than to take something completely out of left field.” The artists wanted the title to not make sense–that was their sense of creativity, and it’s enjoyable to listeners whether they understand it or not.
It’s obvious Leif Erikson has nothing to do with the lyrics which is why it’s comical. Musicians with no fear of making their art seem ludicrous are the most divergent in the business; reason being their ability to not care about the appearance of their music. It’s for those who choose to listen.
With power chords on the A and D string, ‘Leif Erikson’ starts with a simple, yet effective melody that pans to the left. The moment this begins is extremely relaxing, with waves of anxiety slipping away. The panning centers as Paul begins to sing and what I find beguiling about his voice in this song is it’s sung almost completely in monotone. There’s little to no emotion detectable; some would say it’s boring, but I see it as numbing. It’s almost like you’re paralyzed in an emotionally stricken state of mind. Once the song’s over, I have a hard time getting the rhythm out of my head. I think the melody was meant to leave the audience trapped in a trance because it certainly does that for me.
A lot of music is directed towards or about sex and ‘Leif Erikson’ I believe is as well. My interpretation of the song could be completely incorrect, but after listening to it over and over for months, this is how I see it: A man and woman are in a sensual relationship where he’s constantly fighting his feelings towards her. He wants something more, she doesn’t.
In the beginning of the song, the man is addressing the relationship in a sort of fleeting voice:
“She says it helps with the lights out. Her rabid glow is like braille to the night.”
She likes the lights off, and she’s being compared to braille–a language meant for the blind to understand letters and numbers. He may feel like the blind one in this situation. He can only understand her at night when she allows them to be together.
There’s the idea that he’s not okay with this as he sings,
“She swears, ‘I’m a slave to the details.’”
For a while, I thought this was the woman talking about herself. I thought she was worried about her image and maybe that’s why she’s staying in the dark with this relationship, but I came to realize that this is directed towards him. He’s bound to the details of something more. They’re relationship is strictly sexual and disguised, but he wants the intimacy of a real relationship.
My favorite line comes in with a monotonous drop,
“But if your life is such a big joke, why should I care?”
This is chokingly real. Before connecting this line to the rest of the song, I have to address how hard I was hit the first time I intentionally listened to the lyrics. I felt targeted, like the big joke in my life’s story. There always seems to be something going wrong, and it’s not hard for other people to see that.
Life sometimes seems to be a wreck, there’s no reason for me to ask for help or give in to someone else because people simply have no obligation to care. In regards to the storyline, he’s trying to convince himself he shouldn’t care for her. She’s obviously not in the state where she wants something real, it’s almost stupid to be with the same guy over and over without any commitment. And that’s what he’s trying to get into his head, she’s living her life as if it’s a joke, but he can’t as he cares for her on a deeper level.
I’m pleased to say this song has no chorus. There’s many phrases repeated, but there’s never a run-of-the-mill chorus. One of these phrases brings in a quicker pace with the lyrics:
“Clock is set for nine but you know you’re gonna make it eight. That you two can take some time teach each other to reciprocate.”
This line took me a long time to understand. I thought he was speaking about the girl; how she’ll get up earlier than needed to try and get away from him sooner, reducing the amount of time they’d have to actually speak to each other. But to my mistake, it’s the exact opposite. This song is in the first person of the man, yet he’s speaking to himself in the 3rd. He sets his clock for sooner, almost forcing them to talk to each other, and to his hopes, do his best in getting her to reciprocate his feelings.
The guitar continues as the lyrics leave you pondering just to come back to another one of my favorite lines:
“She feels that my sentimental side should be held with kids gloves, but she doesn’t know that I left my urge in the ice box.”
Banks’ voice starts to rise with some sort of emotion behind it. It’s as though the man is almost grasping for the woman’s attention. Because of this, she’s trying to make him feel like he’s a kid for having real feelings for her. In an almost silly way, she’s mockingly disregarding him. But what she fails to see is his inability to keep up with constant fake love when he actually wants her. His urge for sex decreases when his subliminal mind knows he’s not getting what he really wants.
In the same verse, he continues to say:
“She swears, ‘I’m just prey for the female.’ Well, then hook me up and throw me, baby cakes ‘Cause I like to get hooked.”
Because he’s ‘fragile’ in her eyes, she believes that every woman could easily use him, like animals stalking prey, and yet, he sarcastically continues to conform. His mindset is he’s at least getting something out of it, even though that something isn’t what’s majorly desired. This song is growing into a story of entrapment. A battle between a man’s love and a woman too carefree to give in to such emotions.
Continuing his first person point of view, he repeats, “The clock is set for nine but you know you’re gonna make it eight.” But this time it includes:
“All the people that you’ve loved, they’re all bound to leave some keepsakes.”
I think of a tortured mind, haunted by the people he’s let in. I believe I share a similar trait with him, the difficulty to let go of the past. It takes me much longer to get over someone than it does them. I also get feelings at the most inconvenient times, for the most inconvenient people. This goes for him too. He’s let her in and the feelings might as well become a keepsake, seeing as they won’t leave.
“I’ve been swinging all the time, think it’s time I learned your way. I picture you and me together in a jungle, it would be ok.”
Once again, he’s trying to convince himself to act in a manner more like hers. She’s living the simpler life of no feelings attached, and he’s trying to open himself up to it. In regards to the two of them in a jungle, like Tarzan swinging from vines, they’d be with multiple people. The man’s dreading the idea of ‘swinging’ with someone other than her, and her doing the same.
The music evens out as a steady drum beat kicks in:
“I’ll bring you when my lifeboat sails through the night. That is supposing that you don’t sleep tonight.”
Paul starts to elucidate his lyrics as he drags out the italicized words. Giving into her, giving up the chase, letting her continuously get what she wants. There’s no use clawing for something more. With the loss of the regular guitar strings, his discarded attitude is facile. This is the calm before the storm setting up a cascade of emotions on the verge of eruption.
The suspense starts to grow:
“It’s like learning a new language… as we catch up on my mind. If you don’t bring up those lonely parts, this could be a good time.”
GAH! It’s nail biting going so in depth with this song. I feel sickened by the truth behind these lyrics, but I love it. Adapting to the woman’s nature is like learning a new language. It’s extremely difficult to put his words into hers and have a discussion on the same page. However, he’s still attempting to open up, he wants to get on her level to eventually get her on his. He wants to see the brokenness in her that’s so obviously there by her persistent need for uninvolved sex. It’s almost relieving to him seeing her falter in such a way because she’s at least giving into him. No matter how hard he doesn’t want to be, he’s still clinging onto what little hope he has left.
“It’s like learning a new language… You come here to me. We’ll collect those lonely parts and set them down. You come here to me.”
Paul’s yelling, “you come here to me” because she’s with HIM. He’ll do what he can for her even though it’s excruciating.
“She says brief things, her love’s a pony… My love’s subliminal. She says brief things, her love’s a pony… My love’s subliminal.”
And there’s the end of the song with a shuddering drum beat and a drag of the keyboard. This is the first and only time in the song that Paul keeps a tuneful voice, and it concludes the message perfectly. How everyone writes a conclusion to an essay recapping their main points, the man did the same. He and this woman don’t talk much but when they do it’s brief. “Her love’s a pony,” is more difficult to navigate, but after a little research, in Britain, pony is slang for 25 quid because that was the typical price for a small horse in the 18th century. If this is true, it’s possible this woman has been a prostitute the entire time and he’s fallen in love. This then trips up the storyline in a variety of ways. Maybe the woman was right about him being fragile. Maybe he’s just been delusional over the impression of love he’s created. There’s so many possibilities with no real answer. There’s also the idea that he thinks of her as a figurative hooker because of the way their relationship has played out, but I could be wrong.
All in all, the man has fallen for someone he so obviously shouldn’t have, and there’s no going back now. He is completely and utterly trapped in romantic anguish that coincided with his inability to detach feelings to sex–as most humans do facing a similar consequence.
This is what I love about the song. Nothing actually makes sense, and since Interpol hasn’t released the meaning behind the song, I can interpret these lyrics however I’d like. It’s the absurdity of it all that curates the most complicated emotions. It’s also the absurdity that makes you want more. It’s the absurdity that makes your toes curl at the thought of relating to the lyrics. It’s the absurdity of the viking-esque guitar strings that could fly me away to a world so far beyond this. I may be crazy for being so in love with this song, and if so, I own up to it proudly. I’ve tried to surface my thoughts and emotions to a great extent in this article, but in truth, I didn’t do it well. There’s grime in ‘Leif Erikson’ that’s inexplicably marvelous. I cannot put it into words, which is why I urge readers to listen.
Leif Erikson by Interpol: https://open.spotify.com/track/0whlogyhf1AejBU72KNv38?si=Q3QokSeoSz-8IA9iVfbreA&context=spotify%3Asearch