…because they’ve got plenty of their own.
Four years ago, people found Transference off-putting: long, melancholy songs riding on seemingly-endless grooves before cutting out mid-phrase; sparse demos peppering a nocturnal landscape of blank-eyed art rock. They were mistaken, of course, but let bygones be bygones.
Last weekend I was at the wedding of two university classmates, and for a little while at the party I manned the decks. I thought of what Britt Daniel has said so often of Prince’s music, that to dial back and strip a song of its most essential parts was a signifier of great, unifying pop. (And so often have Spoon followed that recipe.) So I cued up a few of the Purple One’s hits, and it brought middle-aged scientists and pre-teen boppers onto the dancefloor.
Most recently, interviewed in The Guardian, Daniel said,
“Prince’s greatest singles were minimal […] pretty sparse – and I think that when you can make a track with a small number of elements, you’re halfway to having a single. And that seemed more appealing at some point.”
They Want My Soul, to a large extent, abandons this recipe. I loved Transference’s sprezzatura then, and continue to. But that all sounds skeletal now.
Minimalism has been thrown out if the window, and a grand piano too, by the sounds of it. Dave Fridmann’s paws trample over proceedings with (restrained, by his standards) glamour. All this studio enhancement, so different from the fourth-wall-shattering of old, has given Spoon the freedom to craft their most ‘pop’ album to date. Not the Costello-aping pop of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, but the weird pop that’s defined by sonic outliers and which has the ability to cross over into the mainstream.
Even where there’s a whiff of Gimme Fiction-era, straight-laced pop rock, as on the title-track and “Let Me Be Mine”, there are sugary treats the Spoon of old would not have countenanced. On the former, we get eery barbershop backing vocals, tin-pan drumming in the intro, and tricksy jabs of guitar teleported from At War With The Mystics. On the latter, in which elastic-band acoustic strumming predominates, the jangle is punctuated by passages of ethereal moonshine shoeshine, with Daniel hooting and cooing over a trickle of synth.
Something else that can denote ‘pop’ is an openness with emotions. Back in 2007, on “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”, the heart was on the sleeve, but only as a vivid tattoo. In 2014, on “Do You”, a humid song in which reedy overtones, perhaps from a distant church-organ, bleed into the late-summer bliss, Daniel loses his usual swagger and opens up totally. In the chorus, he asks, “Do you / Run when it’s just getting good?”, as of a man who cannot believe his luck in finding true love. It’s a gem of honesty from a sad-sack of a character who has been lifted far above the sticky heat, nestled between compositions of greater urgency on one side, and greater weariness on the other.
Daniel matured into a reliably sophisticated songwriter several years ago, round about the release of Kill The Moonlight. On They Want My Soul, he explores the farthest reaches of his craft, and mines the rare-earth metals of his bandmates’ hinterland. On the opener, “Rent I Pay”, Jim Eno’s atypically cavernous drumming and Rob Pope’s jagged, oceans-deep bass cavort with a bridge in which “Ooh-la” backing vocals trigger a fizzle of reverb. A lurching time-signature reveals itself to be anthemic. Immediately after, they follow this brazen, snarling beast with “Inside Out”, in which Dr. Dre’s 2001 is reheated into a devotional slow-jam that picks the love of humans over the love of blind faith, with desiccated harp and dreamily filtered electric piano rubbing up against a reassuring R&B beat. This is ballsy sequencing.
At the risk of mentioning every song (a risk that will later materialise), the album’s midpoint is marked by a gently jarring crossfade between two radically different songs, and radically different to Spoon’s back-catalogue. “Knock Knock Knock” features preternaturally bright acoustic guitar and phased drums, backed with insane whistling: pure Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips. It looks further back, too, journeyman lyrics, brooding piano flourishes and fairground organ recalling Bowie qua Major Tom. On the other side of the jump is “Outlier”, a glittering sprint of Northern Soul. That key lyric, “And I remember when / You walked out of Garden State / ‘cos you had taste, you had taste / You had no time to waste”, is equally cutting every time you hear it, and could serve as a manifesto for the band. Those shimmering pulses of synth convey neon lights; the intricate phrases of acoustic guitar, their watery reflections in pools of Blackpool night. It’s thrilling to hear Spoon use a song musically so distinct from their œuvre to so clinically dissect the culture that surrounds them.
For all the poptimism, there’s no mistaking this for an album of unequivocal joy, as “Rainy Taxi” demonstrates. “I came home last night / I had no good news / And you’ve been sleeping through the brightest flash of apocalyptic ruin,” Daniel drawls, with his characteristically slippery treatment of syllables. Musically, the song is pure spy film. A thumping motorik beat, punctured by jolting one-note bass, while persistent trails of overdriven electric guitar wander and flicker overhead. By the song’s halfway point, the piano has migrated from the silky lounge to the scoundrel-infested bar, Alex Fischel pounding the ivories with kamikaze-like abandon. Somewhere amidst the menace, Daniel works in a pre-chorus chord-sequence from the songbooks of the open American road, and a reference to David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”.
At the outset of the year, I had a miserable dream in which Spoon elected to release “Raw Repetition”, a moronic album of easy-listening piano music, sort of like “Written In Reverse” but with every edge blunted into a miasma of wretchedness. So of course I laughed when I heard their cover of “I Just Don’t Understand”, a song previously covered by The Beatles (a cover so obscure, however, only record-collectors like Spoon would think to use it to pay homage to the Fab Four). It’s the dead of night, in an upstate New York studio, and Alex Fischel is tossing off blue notes like there will never be a future need to stay in tune, ever. It’s an act of casual brilliance—far greater than the actual closer, the perky and meticulous “New York Kiss”—that helps allay any fears that, in making their most marketable album yet, Spoon would tamp down their artistry. Perhaps the basic instruments of their trade are given too little prominence on this release. That’s a small quibble when what has replaced them, and probably only for a finite extent, is used with such dexterity and finer feeling. Let’s hope this album gives them Commercial Appeal.