by PETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
Sustained excellence is a rare treasure in popular music. It happens so infrequently, you’d expect listeners to express nothing less than overwhelming gratitude whenever we encounter such persistent greatness. Instead, we often respond with ratcheting demands (give us more of that, but different and better!) and churlishness (that wasn’t what I was asking for – you suck!). When artists, working solo or in a group, set a high bar early on, and continue to meet or even exceed those standards over the years, we require constant amazement, if not a totalbottom-upreinvention along the way. Should they merely deliver ongoing refinement – with a dash of left turns here and there – we damn them with the faintest of praiseworthy terms: consistency. The exceptional work that set our expectations in the first place fades from memory. Familiarity breeds a bored sigh.
Such is the case with Spoon. The Austin band gets plenty of popular and critical love, no doubt, just not enough of either. Huge commercial success may be a lost cause for most rock outfits nowadays, but appreciation is another matter entirely. As a whole, Spoon’s first-rate catalog is taken for granted. Almost everyone agrees the group makes taut and elegant rock ‘n’ roll, hefty with melodic and emotional verve, with remarkable dependability. And yet there’s a widely accepted, if implicit, notion that rock music is more important, more serious, more worthy, when served with a side of genre blending and obfuscation, rather than straight up. Here’s the old Beatles versus Stones divide, still inserting a false dichotomy into our evaluation of rock, fifty years later.
This is a mindset fundamentally stuck in a romanticized past. It assumes an era that probably never existed, one where you could simply walk into a dive club, swing a tattered copy of CREEM, and knock over two or three exciting garage bands. The truth is rock long ago lost its vibrant middle. For those of us still interested in hearing music driven by an electric guitar, accompanied by a rhythm section that contains a drum kit and a bass guitar, our options are becoming increasingly limited. What’s left? There’s marketable dreck like Maroon 5 (which includes a bright spot: the Black Keys), the nostalgia acts of rock’s supremacy (another bright spot: Bowie’s latest), or those artists in the fertile hinterlands of the genre, who can’t sprint fast enough away from the form’s vital simplicity. Spoon’s music isn’t the only refuge within modern rock’s dusty badlands – God bless you, Japandroids – but it is the most verdant. Spoon remains a stalwart holdover from a decade that saw the Strokes, the White Stripes, and lesser upstarts afford pure (throwback?) rock a final, merciful, gulp of oxygen.
Spoon’s eighth LP They Want My Soul arrives over twenty years after its debut recording, the Nefarious EP. The new record warrants a superlative of some kind. But I struggle to find one that couldn’t legitimately apply elsewhere within the band’s impeccable string of releases, starting with 1998’s A Series of Sneaks all the way through 2010’s Transference. I would call it Spoon’s most cohesive album, if it weren’t for 2001’s Girls Can Tell. I would call it Spoon’s most assured album, if it weren’t for 2002’s Kill the Moonlight. I would call it Spoon’s most enjoyable album, if it weren’t for 2005’s Gimme Fiction. I would even call it my favorite Spoon album, if it weren’t for 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. So maybe They Want My Soul is Spoon’s most illustrative album, the Spoon-iest of Spoon albums. Need I underscore how astonishing and improbable a feat this is, two decades deep into the group’s career? No? I’ll do it anyway: They Want My Soul is the sort of mid-career album promising young bands should aspire to, and long-established acts will come to resent.
They Want My Soul feels like a comeback, one that goes beyond the long hiatus that separates it from Transference. It isn’t exactly a return to a “classic sound” – Spoon always sounds like itself – nor does it correct a prior artistic misstep. Though Transference, Spoon’s first and only self-produced LP, was warmly received at first, time hasn’t been very kind to it. If the album carries an air of disappointment, the fault isn’t with its merits, but with listeners’ tastes, or perhaps their memories. Transference was an intentionally shaggy and sometimes sour affair, which dimmed Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’s luminance and smeared its precise lines. This rawness was taken as a serious flaw; the quality of its songs were either overlooked or forgotten (“Written in Reverse,” “Before Destruction,” and “The Mystery Zone” easily rank among Spoon’s finest cuts). With producers Dave Friedmann (the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) and Joe Chiccarelli (the Strokes, My Morning Jacket) at the helm, Spoon snaps back to full tensile strength on They Want My Soul. The new album packs the nervous energy and tuneful bounce that has become the band’s trademark (as evidenced on singles “Rent I Pay” and “Do You”), but unlike Transference, it lifts the smokescreen and delivers its unadulterated goods with great exuberance (see “Rainy Taxi” and “Let Me Be Mine”). Britt Daniel has saidThey Want My Soul is “one for playing loud in your car.” That seems about right, though I’ll have to take his word for it. As a city dweller who relies on mass transit, I can, however, attest to how incredible it sounds at high decibels inside the four walls of an apartment.
Though They Want My Soul fully satisfies a four-year itch for new Spoon music, it isn’t a mere retread of past glories or a paint-by-number exercise. New bandmate Alex Fischel (an alumnus of Daniel’s Divine Fits side-project) brings added density to Spoon’s famously minimalist approach. His inclusion is most evident on two electrifying highlights: album centerpiece “Knock Knock Knock,” a mid-tempo kiss-off punctuated by Fischel’s snarling, processed fretwork; and the ecstatic dance-rock gem “New York Kiss,” which concludes Soul on a synth-laden high note. For every instantly recognizable zig – the album’s jeremiad of a title-track even calls back a beloved earlier work – there’s an accompanying zag into fresh and stranger moments. The delay-heavy haze of “Outlier” finds its inspiration in the unlikeliest of sources, PJ Harvey’s WWI lament “This Glorious Land,” while “Rent I Pay” borrows its guitar-and-drum riff from Joan Jett & The Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” There’s even a Spoon-ified Ann-Margret cover. (To be fair, another noteworthy band pillaged it first.) They Want My Soul’s biggest surprise is “Inside Out,” a luxuriant and yearning slow-burner that points the group in a gorgeous new direction, should they ever want to abandon this rock ‘n’ roll business once and for all.
Or maybe Spoon just wants to give up on music, period. There is a palpable sense that They Want My Soul is meant to be a swan song. The very title of the album communicates weariness, which is outlined in copious detail on the track that bears the same name. On “Do You,” Britt Daniel asks, “Do you want to run when it’s just getting good?” It appears he doesn’t know the answer. This theme of escape, of explicitly running away, pops up on “Rainy Taxi” (which also references The Wizard of Oz, the definitive text of exit fantasies) and “Let Me Be Mine.” The promotional image that announced “Rent I Pay” notably displayed an “R.I.P.” – the song’s initials, ha – underneath the band’s name, in white text against a black background. The last words Daniel sings on They Want My Soul: “I say goodnight.” I know my irrational fears are probably getting the better of me. Can you blame the paranoia? Rock albums this accomplished are becoming fewer and further between. If They Want My Soul is the end, what an end it is. If not, here’s to twenty more years. A-