[4 August 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
With so many voices talking about culture via the internet, we get two contradictory things: we more perspectives and opinions on art and culture than ever, but we also move on quicker than ever. Especially with the release of new music, books, and film, voices tend to swell up around release dates and then die down, at least until year-end list time comes. This isn’t a new trend in criticism and opinion so much as it an amplified version of what came before. But it also leaves us constantly channeling the new, or arguing what we perceive to be the overlooked.
That new and overlooked get a lot of attention can, of course, propel art and culture forward, but it can sometimes leave out the consistent artist. We’re all for discovery and reinvention, for redemption of the established and the emergence of the underdog. But what we then leave out, or tend to tire of, are bands like Spoon. Critics seemed to be in Spoon fatigue when the band’s 2010 album, Transference came out. The reviews were, by and large, relatively positive, and fans seemed plenty pleased with the record. But it also followed a string of records, from 2001’s Girls Can Tell to 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga that were all excellent (and the two albums before this, Telefono and A Series of Sneaks aren’t too shabby either). And so there seemed to be an ambivalence toward a very good album, in Tranference, that in retrospect is every bit as restless and creative and singular as its predecessors.
Spoon had, of course, arrived by 2010. They were critical darlings, we had no fear of them as underdogs. In other words, it wasn’t as cool to like Spoon four years ago as it was before. You couldn’t claim to be in-the-know, because so many other people were. Transference sold incredibly well, charted higher than their other records, and now we had to finally all admit that Spoon was an established, excellent rock band. Instead, reviews spent a lot of time discussing Transference in the shadow of past Spoon records.
The band has been away for four years, with players working on different projects. Most notably, Frontman Britt Daniel formed the Divine Fits with Handsome Furs’ Dan Boeckner. But now Spoon is back as a five piece, with new keyboardist Alex Fischel, and four years has not led to reinvention on They Want My Soul. Instead, the evolution of their sound has remained of a piece with the group’s consistent quality. This is another very good Spoon record, but it’s not the same as any other Spoon record. It is also a record that, in the ways it continues and twists the band’s sound, reminds us that Spoon put in a lot of work to find their sound. Telefono and the Soft Effects EP had all the post-punk angles and grit, but later records would find subtlety along with touches of blues, soul and R&B. This was a band that built itself rather than beginning fully formed, and four years ago we may have been ready to take all that work for granted. But now, with a new record, you may find yourself realizing you really missed Spoon.
“Rent I Pay”, the album opener, is a brittle stomper, full of crunching guitars and Jim Eno’s perfectly low rumbling drums. Fischel’s keys give a faint, sweet skronk to the song (and the album), but as Daniel bellows out the title phrase over choruses, only to let his rasp melt into faint backing vocals, you realize you’re once again happily awash in the band’s subtle use of layers and the melding of soft tones with sharp angles. “Inside Out”, however, peels back the edge and opens up into some sort of space-aged R&B. Daniel’s voice is vulnerable and ranging, even as he asserts, clear-eyed, “I don’t got time for holy rollers.” Around him, keys and strings swell, and the rhythm section marks a skittering stomp through the proceedings. It’s the inverse of past songs like, say, “Small Stakes”. There, studio experimentation gave us a new kind of tension in the band’s sound, but on “Inside Out” we hear a kind of grandeur that’s always been under the surface of their songs. Here, it’s just up front and, despite its gossamer vibe, thick with atmosphere.
The album strikes a nice balance between pop immediacy and production tinkering. “Rainy Taxi” is a lean piano-driven song scuffed up by dissonant fills and guitars scraped out with treble. “Knock Knock Knock” reminds us of the way Daniel can make an acoustic guitar hit with the power of a kick drum, but it also feels stuck between the swelling of keys and the squall of guitar feedback. “They Want My Soul” is as pure a pop song as Spoon has ever written, and yet the combination of keys and washed-out guitars makes it feel so fuzzy it’s almost snow blind.
Songs like “They Want My Soul” and “Do You” are at the heart of the album, in that they remind you of great Spoon songs of the past, but add something to the formula. Spoon has never sounded so comfortable in their own skin as they do here, so even their take on “I Just Don’t Understand”, a song recorded in 1961 by Ann-Margret, sounds indelibly like a Spoon song. If the band is confident in the studio on this record, there is a shift in how that confidence presents itself. Where Spoon has always tinkered in the studio, in the past that tinkering has always sounded on record like moments of discovery. Sometimes here, on the overlong outro to “Inside Out” or the soft layers of closer “New York Kiss”, that tinkering feels less effortless and more workman-like.
But if the music does, in moments, threaten to sound too serious or overworked, it often corrects itself. Daniel also injects some personality and sly humor that gives the album another sort of life. When, on “Outlier”, he sings “I remember when you walked out of Garden State / because you had taste, you had taste, / you had no time to waste,” he’s baiting a too-hip audience maybe a bit more than he’s ragging on Zach Braff. And, despite its seemingly serious title, Daniel makes time to remind us “Jonathan Fisk still wants my soul.” It’s great nod back to a song from Kill the Moonlight, but also another reference to a real high-school bully from Daniel’s past who has, according to Daniel, now become a fan of the band.
They Want My Soul, then, is as much about that titular “they” as it is about Spoon. It’s another strong record from the band, one that pushes forward in interesting ways while still staying rooted in Spoon’s signature sound. If it stumbles, it does so rarely and in search of the new. But it also presents Spoon as the kind of band we shouldn’t take for granted. This isn’t a return to form so much as it is a chance for us to collectively celebrate consistency once again. Because the band still does give us its soul, we just may need to adjust our narrative around it.