As a destined classic, Gimme Fiction doesn’t announce itself like we expect “classics” to, beating its chest and assuming its superiority; instead, it transmits its ideas in clandestine asides, on scraps of graph paper passed around the room, through a generous give-and-take of modestly elastic proportions. It exhibits all the tell-tale signs of an oncoming storm without the messy aftereffects of a natural disaster.
In the eyes of many, Spoon (the Austin, Texas group’s core is singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Britt Daniel and drummer/engineer Jim Eno) has already reached its apex; depending on who you ask, the band’s artistic zenith is either the oil-and-gas-fumed A Series of Sneaks (1998), the Motown-hallucinating Girls Can Tell (2001), or the brilliantly streamlined Kill the Moonlight (2002). (Those who cite the 1996 debut Telephono as the band’s best simply haven’t been paying attention.) Spoon’s major label molestation story (oft-told, recounted here for posterity) is a familiar one of other great bands in the late ‘90s: after signing to Elektra Records and recording A Series of Sneaks, the label released the record and the band at roughly the same time. Finding solidarity with indie dynamo Merge Records (the label that has nurtured the band since), Spoon really established its own identity with Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight, marrying Daniel’s unique, uncompromised songwriting with the taut, spacious production of Elvis Costello circa Get Happy!!! and Trust.
But if every Spoon album is a refined link in the band’s subtle evolution, Gimme Fiction must be seen as its crowning achievement to date. While it’s not specifically a grab-bag amalgam of the band’s greatest moments, Gimme Fiction does seem to draw wisely on the band’s strengths: the spiny bite of Sneaks, the blue-eyed soul of Girls, the fevered urgency of Moonlight. The sound of Gimme Fiction is as ideal a conceptualization of the band as could be imagined; Daniel and Eno’s distinctive piano and drum sounds are familiar and progressive propellers, the songs themselves are initially elusive to fully grasp and only gradually work their way deep under the skin.
As album sequencings go, the 1-2-3-4 blast that opens Gimme Fiction is as good as they get, the songs distant cousins stylistically but blood brothers coherently. It begins at the shoreline of the primordial swamp: “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” is the fish adapting to land, legs functioning but waking from sleep, lumbering from the muck and taking in air for the first time. Ill-omened piano chords sit atop Jim Eno’s big beat; Daniel’s mouth’s full of marbles split and broken, the soft bits caught under his tongue and the jagged edges grating his teeth; the lyrics allude haphazardly to the songs yet to come and the ideas forming within the song’s spacious atmosphere. Then Daniel’s guitar comes in through the bathroom window and claws the wallpaper from the walls.
Gaining mobility, “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine” wakes up to questions of duality and performance. The narrator’s drawn to the titular role, for “he gets to swordfight the duke [and] kidnaps the queen”; the song itself explores the possibilities in such a performance and, in turn, creates its own little theater. Brought to life like marionettes, the instruments’ hearts throb in your head and pulse in your legs, the bass’ buoyancy picking up signs of life from the drums (aside: Daniel’s bass playing makes this record), all of it sheltered by velvet curtain of the Tosca Strings. The record cements its mobilization with “I Turn My Camera On”; it’s Sandinista!-era Clash running through a sexed-up Prince icebreaker between takes of “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Call Up”. The band’s head becomes cognizant of its groin, the skeletal guitar/bass/drums wrapped around a confused sexual awakening: “I turn my feelings on inside / Feel like I’m gonna ignite”.
A tape machine starts up, a piano bangs out a seesaw chord augmentation; Daniel hollers “Oh!” and then, more confident and sly, “Yes!” “My Mathematical Mind” blows it all to hell. The song hangs on one wobbling, incriminating chord, a chord that has just turned its back to the bar, raised its ass slightly from the barstool, hovering there not so much from libation-fueled lightheadedness, but from picking up the scent of entitlement and desiring to annihilate it. It shoulders its way through the refuse—mangled guitar abstractions hurled like shot glasses, tom fills and cymbal crashes that fall like the wood of overturned tables splintering on the floor, the veiled threats of “Bringing about the apocalypse / Is not considered cool”—and comes out scraped and bruised on the other side, triumphant. “My Mathematical Mind” is all intimidation and leather pose, barking, taking a licking and licking its own wounds.
The record’s middle third—“The Delicate Place”, “Sister Jack”, and “I Summon You”—acts as a sort of transition from its turbulent birth to the circular fever dream explored at its end. “Sister Jack”, the most conventional and ridiculously catchy pop song of the bunch, soars like “And Your Bird Can Sing” and wrangles sampled sound like “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”. “I can’t relax / With my knees on the ground and a stick in my back,” Daniel sings in double-tracked vocals that shift almost imperceptibly, and the song furthers that edginess and insecurity, retaliating against a sucker punch with its fists casting blurs around the room. “I Summon You”, Gimme Fiction‘s most naked, introspective song, is also its malleable gateway back into the world from which it came. Here Spoon is reduced to its most basic, unadorned instrumentation, proffering a melody and chord progression both knotty and flirtatious with words that ache, pine, and shoulder burdens: “You got the weight of the world coming down like a mother’s eye / And all that you can give is a cold goodbye”.
Moving into its final third, Gimme Fiction becomes a cauldron of atmosphere, manipulating its simple arrangements into swirling, groove-oriented soundscapes. “The Infinite Pet” coaxes a stingy blues riff into some moonlit cornfield ritual, beckoning the ghosts of bluesy woe (“Resigned myself to the fate of the failed and the conned”) and vacuuming them up into an intensifying black hole. “Was It You?” seeks to identify a fleeting encounter at night, caught up in its own suspicious, obsessive repetitions of sound; over a taciturn groove of bass and drums, instrumental patterns criss-cross, interlope, and react as parallels and adjacents. The melody of “They Never Got You” is vintage Plastic Ono Band-esque Lennon, its hypnotic construction practically as meager as “I Summon You”; yet even without the embellishments of a song like “Was It You?”, its stringent reinforcement of a cyclical pattern creates the illusion of a tense climax. “Cover your tracks / Cover the path to the heart / Don’t let those footholds start / And don’t let no one in,” Daniel advises, wearily, not so much negating the record’s previous honesties as he is guarding them.
When Gimme Fiction ends with the passionate percussions of “Merchants of Soul”, it’s over all too fast. Its evolutionary track—emerging thornily, grappling with its own upright equilibrium, and then throwing off the scent in the woods—is swift, carefully plotted, and dangerously confident. This is how the new century will be built: from the ground on up, brick by brick, chord by chord, ushering new concepts in vessels of the familiar, charting the untold expanses of the simple, provoked by stark reductionism and snowballing creativity. Whether in Austin, Texas or Paterson, New Jersey, Spoon’s implied insistence of William Carlos Williams’s ideal will resonate: “No ideas but in things!”
// Notes from the Road
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