Last time most of us saw Spoon, the four-piece indie rock band was playing They Want My Soul’s second single “Inside Out” on the late night talk show circuit. The group suddenly had five members, two of them were playing synthesizers, and Britt Daniel was singing the song with his guitar nowhere to be found. Just listening to “Inside Out” on the album, it didn’t sound all that different from most of Spoon’s material. It was a laid-back mid-tempo song driven by Jim Eno’s drumbeat and Daniel’s scratchy, soulful voice. Sure, there were cascades of piano notes that were atypical for the generally sparse arrangements of the band, but it wasn’t that different. Visually, though, removed from the rest of a live set, that song presented a striking look for the band. But They Want My Soul, when taken as a whole, wasn’t a big departure for Spoon.
So with a new album ready to go, is Britt Daniel just keeping on doing what he’s been doing for two decades now, or is he ready to change things up? Turns out Hot Thoughts is mostly Daniel and Spoon doing what they do best. Tuneful, interesting songs with rock solid songwriting dominate the record. It’s got a darkness to its mood and an urgency that is a bit unusual for the band but not radically so.
There are a couple of outliers here worth noting. “Pink Up” is a six-minute jam in the middle of the album, driven by a minor key vibraphone riff. Eventually, Daniel enters with his guitar playing the same riff and sings in a slightly muted fashion. The vocals and lyrics here are secondary to the mood. The emphasis on mood is something that can easily be credited to the band working with noted experimentalist producer Dave Fridmann for this album. The song meanders away after Daniel’s lyrics finish, getting more sonically distorted until some lushly harmonized backward vocals enter then fade away as dueling pianos take over to finish out the song. A full-on jam like this is notable for the notoriously precise Spoon, who have always tended towards being as economical as possible with their songwriting. Then there is the album closer “Us”, a five-minute long instrumental saxophone duet that also reprises the main vibraphone riff of “Pink Up”. It has a big echoey tone that makes it feel like it was recorded in a subway station, and the few times the guitar, bass, and drums enter the song it gives the song a late night, ‘80s movie kind of vibe. Weirdly, because the saxes are melodic and the sparse instrumentation is right in line with what Spoon has done for 20 years, this feels more natural for the band than “Pink Up.”
Elsewhere Spoon does indeed embrace a wider variety of keyboard sounds than they have in the past while remaining true to their basic aesthetic. “WhisperI’lllistentohearit” begins with an urgent, almost John Carpenter-ish pulsing synth riff. But as Daniel comes in singing and his guitar enters it begins to feel more like a hard-rocking Spoon song. Then Jim Eno joins in with a simple drumbeat that recontextualizes the song, and Rob Pope’s bassline pushes everything forward. The song even includes a short but fiery guitar solo and occasional bursts of tambourine. It’s notable that “WhisperI’lllistentohearit” manages to be one of the most intense songs in Spoon’s catalog even though the full band almost never plays together at the same time during it. That’s a testament to Daniel and Eno’s arranging skills. “I Ain’t the One” achieves a similar level of intensity through a simple combination of quiet, constant kick drum beat, Daniel’s forceful singing, and some great, dark electric piano playing from Alex Fischel. The song gets filled out at times through some synth chords, backing vocals, and a synthetic-sounding snare beat, but it’s Daniel’s singing and the electric piano that drive the song.
The press materials for Hot Thoughts make a big deal about how sexy this album supposedly is. That’s evident in Daniel’s lyrics from time to time, like in the title track: “Hot thoughts are in my mind / All of the time” goes the chorus. A backbeat-heavy groove is laid down by the rhythm section while Daniel’s guitar punctuates the song with a succession of sharp riffs and a glockenspiel tinkles along in the background. The more laid-back but similarly grooving “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” is self-explanatory from the title, and damn is it catchy. “First Caress” has the dubious lyric “When you say the wrong thing / I know I hear the right thing / I know it’s just the same.” But as listeners, we only get Daniel’s perspective, and the rest of the lyrics are oblique enough that it’s difficult to parse out a full narrative scenario.
The remainder of the record’s songs hit more of Spoon’s sweet spots. “Can I Sit Next to You” is a testament to what a cool beat and a skeletal guitar riff can do. Eventually, a bassline and a great wobbly synth fill out the track, but Eno and Daniel do all the heavy lifting in the song’s first minute. “Tear it Down” puts Fischel’s piano playing upfront with Daniel’s singing, which includes one of the album’s catchiest choruses. The relaxed mid-tempo pace makes the song feel easygoing despite Daniel’s stabbing guitar chords. Then there’s “Shotgun”, which pushes the band in the same dark, intense direction as “WhisperI’lllistentohearit”, except the full band is on board from the start. The chugging bassline pairs with Daniel’s guitar and vocals to drive the song. “You’re the one that brought a shotgun / You’re the one that made it no fun” goes the band’s penultimate run through the chorus, possibly signaling the dissolution of the relationship that began at the top of the album.
Assigning a narrative concept to Hot Thoughts may be going a bit far at this early date, but there certainly seems to be a throughline of lyrics here. There’s the intense rush of their early days on the album’s top half and the crumbling of “Tear it Down” and “Shotgun”, plus the fact that the melancholy instrumental that finishes the record is called “Us”. Historically Britt Daniel’s lyrics cover a lot of territory, so the fact that this album seems to exclusively be about relationships is telling.
Regardless of concept, though, Hot Thoughts is another top notch record for Spoon. It may be their best since Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, which is saying something because They Want My Soul was also really damn good. The melodies here, both vocal and instrumental, seem to be stickier across the board. The sonic tweaks from Fridmann, mostly in the keyboard tones, are almost wholly successful, even in the rambling “Pink Up” and “Us”. The album strikes almost the perfect balance between traditional songs and adventurous sounds, which makes it stand out in Spoon’s extensive catalog of great albums.
// Notes from the Road
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