The Return of Mope Rock

New Order, the Smiths, and the first pop trend of 2003.

All music snobs harbor a deep, dark secret—the music they loved before they became cool. Maybe it was that first Earth, Wind, and Fire tape. Maybe it was Chicago. Since I’m a big-hearted snob with a weakness for guitars, it makes sense that my own first love was Peter Frampton—a taste that has since passed into the realm of classic kitsch but that was at the time quite genuinely shameful. In college, my favorite bands were the Cure, the Smiths, and New Order, music that my roommates, girlfriends, and other intimates gleefully disparaged as the province of maladjusted kids from the malls. Important Music, they informed me, included Talking Heads, the Ramones, old George Clinton records, Bob Dylan, and the surrealist post-punk of the Pixies. The highest praise that might be eked out for bands like the Smiths and the Cure was that they made pleasant filler on John Hughes soundtracks. They would never be Important Bands. In 15 or 20 years, no one would want to sound like the Smiths or the Cure. So it was written.

Well, the music snobs were wrong. There’s a new generation of mope-rock bands, including Interpol, Matt Pond PA, and My Favorite. They are very clearly descended, respectively, from the Psychedelic Furs, the Cure, and the Smiths, who turn out to be every bit as worthy of note-for-note imitation as any of the proto alt-rock bands of the ‘70s. Just as the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Hives, and the rest of last year’s vowel bands made it big by ripping off the Velvet Underground, a new crop of ambitious young musical scholars is seeking to please the Pop Goddess by plundering the Pretty in Pink soundtrack—making mope rock an early crossover trend-to-watch for 2003. Matador Records (the latest part of indie supermogul Martin Mills’ ever-expanding spit-and-glue empire) is promoting the bejesus out ofInterpol, and other labels are catching on fast. But is the music any good?

In a moment where the recycling of the styles of 20 or 30 years ago has itself become the dominant style, it should certainly be possible for new bands to make some excellent mope-rock records for a generation that never heard of the Smiths, the Furs, or John Hughes. It is also heartening that the new mope rockers can typically play their instruments and handle complex arrangements of the type that would surely bedevil the Strokes. Like their sweater-punk contemporaries, the mope rockers of Generation Y are diligent scholars of the pop styles of yore. The problem here, as with the Strokes and the White Stripes, and even Wilco, is that all those long hours spent studying their older siblings’ cool music seem to have robbed the new music of humor—a quality that the originals had in abundance.

Interpol’s first full-length album, Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador), was one of last year’s biggest critical surprises: an album by a New York band that didn’t sound anything like the Velvet Underground or Iggy Pop but was still named to a bunch of end-of-the-year Top 10 lists by Billboard writers and the other petty dictators who determine what the rest of us will be listening to in the coming year. And the hype is only getting heavier: Interpol is touring heavily this winter and this week will appear on the David Letterman Show, where viewers will be introduced to one of the three listenable songs on their new album. Interpol slavishly imitates the Furs—the same fuzzy guitar lines and the same portentous, flattened delivery. “Obstacle 1” is an educated gumbo of the Psychedelic Furs, New Order, and the Cars; and “Obstacle 2” isn’t bad either. But even the lyrics to the good songs are deliberately muddy, an annoying tactic that makes you listen again and again to lines like “Friends don’t waste [something unintelligible] when there’s words to sell.” You’re sure the missing word will mean something halfway interesting, perhaps arresting. When I figured out that the word was “wine”—“Friends don’t waste wine when there’s words to sell”—I was left instead with the disappointing sense that the lyrics had been poorly translated from the Czech.

The only decent couplet I found comes on the album’s best track, “PDA”: “This is the only version/ of my desertion that I could ever subscribe to,” chanted over a Furs-like drone in that weirdly deadpan, dictatorial voice that made the misfits in John Hughes movies seem so romantic. Since a band that simply sounds like the Furs is obviously a winning idea, saccharine ballads like “NYC”—“New York Cares”—suggest ambitious musicians in search of an anthem, but for the wrong city. Save it for Chicago, pal. Not content with the perfectly honorable work of being a Psychedelic Furs tribute band, Interpol insists on stealing from other bands whose sensibilities they understand even less. “Say Hello to the Angels” is a straight note-for-note steal from the Smiths’ “This Charming Man,” but in place of Morrissey’s fey, self-mocking lines (“I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear”), Interpol gives us a guy bellowing about his “airspace.” Rather than a frantic hairdresser in search of love, this is an annoying young bond trader shouting over the noise at a bar.

Matt Pond PA is a more musically interesting (and frustrating) band than the knockoff artists of Interpol or the Strokes—a chamber pop group full of talented musicians who take musical cues from the Cure, New Order, Guided by Voices, and Stephin Merritt. As a songwriter, Pond is deadly serious about his craft, with results that are predictably hit and miss. On The Nature of Maps (Polyvinyl) the result is a combination of intelligent arrangements, dour, overwrought lyrics, plodding bass lines, and one of the best Cure-like songs I’ve ever heard—it’s called “Closer.” The hook is great, and the cellos are gorgeous.

The rest of the songs all blend together. The band itself seems to be particularly high on “No More,” a perfectly nice little song that appears on the record twice—once with lyrics and once without. Here’s part of the vocal: “When the white oak has no answer/ turns its back on you/ the maple calls you/ shows you something new.” Listen to the way it’s sung in that stricken poet tenor, redolent with strain and loss. I like the instrumental version better. It is easy to imagine that Matt Pond PA might be someone’s favorite band—but again, they’re humorless. American mope-rock fans never understood that the shoe-gazing pose was always partly a put-on, that Morrissey and Robert Smith were also making fun of the ultra-dramatic emotions they enacted in their songs—a kind of rock ’n’ roll cabaret for smart, sullen teenagers.

It was that combination of irony, empathy, intelligence, and longing that made mope rock so listenable, despite the shoe-gazing and the dusty black clothes. What distinguishes My Favorite from its mope-rock mates is that the group doesn’t allow their reverence for their source material to ruin their sense of humor. My Favorite also wisely decided to slavishly imitate the Smiths—a band that provides a much better songwriting model that either the Psychedelic Furs or the Cure. The bass player, Gilbert Abad, adds pleasant heft to songs that might have sounded thin without his relaxed, intelligent playing. It’s a familiar story: the band that’s clearly better than its like-minded peers but never gets signed to a decent label. So, they keep releasing music in dribs and drabs whenever somebody gets paid. It’s too bad.

My Favorite’s recent series of EPs—Joan of Arc Awaiting Trial, A Cult of One, and The Kids Are All Wrong—contains plenty of well-crafted songs that use the familiar musical vocabulary of the ‘80s to capture the lives of suburban goth kids in the age of Prozac and Christina Ricci. Like the Smiths, My Favorite is a storytelling band, so the emotional territory can feel fresh, even when the underlying characters and plots are familiar. “Homeless Club Kids” unites upbeat synth-pop to dark, funny lyrics (“The ghosts of dead teenagers/ sing to me while I am dancing”). On Morrissey-like anthems with titles like “Le Monster” and “The Black Cassette,” My Favorite prove themselves a worthy companion to their heroes.

“At a seaside home for convalescence/ I took his name in vain during piano lessons/ Three nuns like shadows came and dragged me up the stairs/ then beat me black and blue with my book of prayers,”says the doleful narrator of “The Lesser Saints.” He closes with the lonely image that unites the Smiths, the Cure, the Psychedelic Furs, and New Order with their current crop of imitators. “I closed my eyes until they were gone/ and then fell asleep with my headphones on.”

It’s not quite the Smiths. But it’s not really such a bad imitation, either.