When you remove the layers of hype, walk away from the number of “Best of the Decade” lists that the band keeps popping up on these days, and just look at it for what it is, Transference, Spoon’s seventh full-length album, is really just another Spoon album ...
... and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
It’s somewhat fitting that 2010 marks the 10-year anniversary of Britt Daniel and co.‘s incendiary little single “The Agony of Laffitte”, wherein the band unleashed a scathing tirade against the A&R rep who signed the group to Elektra Records in the late ‘90s and immediately promised the band tons of promotional money that never materialized (the resulting record, 1998’s A Series of Sneaks, fared little better than the group’s low-selling indie debut just two years prior). Yet after the “Laffitte” single came out on the then-fledging Saddle Creek label, the press finally began to take notice, and—starting with 2001’s Girls Can Tell, the little Austin, Texas band that could embarked on what is arguably one of the most winning streaks in modern rock history.
Having shed the jagged Pixies comparisons of their early work, Girls showed Spoon leaning into their long-standing pop impulses harder than ever before, and their stunning 2002 record Kill the Moonlight followed those explorations to their logical end. Moonlight—with its to-the-point keyboards, anthemic ballads, and experimental pop songs—was a record that surprised many people with its sheer minimalism. The opening “Small Stakes” featured little more than a few melodic key stabs and Daniel’s trademark vocal scratchings, perpetually building to a power-ballad climax but never really getting there. As this (and countless other tracks) evidenced, the group had a knack for stripping songs down to their bare essentials, using the silence between guitar strums just as effectively as the strums themselves, resulting in a unique sound that was more matter-of-fact than overindulgent, the group’s dry edge serving as an effective base for Daniel’s ever-cryptic lyrical pastiches.
When it came to 2005’s Gimme Fiction however, the group began beefing up their instrumentation, tightening their songwriting, and putting their influences way out in front (Prince’s purple touch could be felt in a few Spoon tracks before, but never as explicitly as on the bare-bones funk of “I Turn My Camera On”). The album was a critical darling, the group began getting their songs on TV shows and soundtracks, and by the time the groove-heavy 2007 disc Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga came around, the band was breaching the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart, their status as indie-rock gods firmly established. It was fitting that the lead single from that record was called “The Underdog”, because after years of being just that, Spoon had finally come out on top.
Taking all of that into consideration, Transference feels more like a victory lap than a leap forward, touching on different eras of the band’s sound without really breaking any new ground; a thematic “greatest hits” if you will. The electric guitar grinds of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga show up again (“Mystery Zone”), as do the full-bodied rock numbers of Gimme Fiction (“Trouble”), the off-kilter pop concoctions of Kill the Moonlight (the spooky-awesome “Who Makes Your Money”), and the Minneapolis Sound recreations that Spoon does oh so well (the abrupt closer “Nobody Gets Me But You”). Interspersed are knockout fuzz-bass singles (“Got Nuffin”), sweetly-hummed piano ballads (“Goodnight Laura”), and the insistent guitar rockers that are bound to become live staples in the near future (“Is Love Forever?”). It is, in short, a Spoon record.
So why do things feel slightly off this time around?
The reason why Transference doesn’t have the same consistency as their last four discs is because it never really settles on a solid identity. Even when Kill the Moonlight spun off on its wild tangents (like on the hazy highlight “Paper Tiger”), everything still adhered to that disc’s to-the-point mantra, which—of course—was almost the exact opposite for Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, wherein the band discovered some nice little pockets of melody and rode them for as long as they possibly could (which, in Spoon’s world, was still only for a few minutes, tops). On each of these albums, there wasn’t a single song that felt out of place: every track was part of a unified whole.
Transference, meanwhile, features none of this consistency, jumping from tangent to tangent without much regard for what comes before or after. Not helping matters at all is the fact that the disc opens with its weakest song, “Before Destruction”: a melodically interesting but somewhat slapdash mix of solo acoustic breaks and full-bodied synth choruses. The understated “Goodnight Laura”, meanwhile, finds a twinkling piano melody to coo the title character to sleep (in typical Daniel fashion, the line he uses to comfort her is just “you’re alright”), but does little with it, hitting an emotional plateau before just… ending. Unlike earlier ballads, which left us wanting more, “Goodnight Laura” leaves us wondering “what just happened?”
It’s somewhat of a shame that these few select moments wind up weighing Transference down, because when the band is on, they sound even more unstoppable than before. “Who Makes Your Money”, in particular, is as breathtaking a tune as we’ve ever heard from the guys, using a slightly off-key keyboard loop and a sneaky little bass stutter to craft a tale of materialism that’s as snarky as it is sweet (the tremolo’d chorus of “who makes your money?” is distorted enough that it sounds like Daniel is actually saying “who makes you mine?”, making the song take on a clever second meaning). Meanwhile, the chorus to the piano-pounding “Written in Reverse” at first feels as lyrically frustrating as your first introduction to a Matt Berninger tune (“I’m writing this to you in reverse / Someone better call a hearse / I can see it all from here / From just a few glimpses / Now a lightbulb’s gone off / And it’s pulling my winces”), before dropping the faintest hint of venom (“I wanna show you how I love you / But there’s nothing there”) and then launching into one of the most spine-chilling vocal performances we’ve ever heard from Daniel, screeching out a chorus that sounds pissed off, angry, and filled with unhinged rage—things that we don’t normally associate with Spoon’s usual wiry rock sounds, but are a positively welcome addition to the palette this time out.
The whip-crack immediacy of “Trouble” and the sheer pop bliss of the distortion-happy “Got Nuffin” only add to Spoon’s already-impressive canon of songs, even if we’ve heard slight variations of these sounds several times before. At the end of the day, Transference is little more than a placeholder for Spoon, as if the group is taking a deliberate breather before closing out their second decade of existence. Sure, Transference may not reach the same dizzying heights as Kill the Moonlight or Gimme Fiction did, but it’s still better than half the indie-rock music that’s out there today. Why? Because, in short, it’s a Spoon album.