Review Summary: Let me be mine.
The critical narrative that inevitably attaches to a band once they’ve reached a certain age – say, their fourth or fifth album – rarely, if ever, has to do with the music the band is actually producing at that particular time. When that band has put out an unnaturally strong run of albums that defined a decade and a sound without ever really being part of anything else, such that a website like Metacritic can crown them Best Artist of the Decade based on aggregate critical scores by those same critics so dumbfounded by that run of excellence that the narrative becomes The Narrative, well, you get the retconning going on with Spoon’s last record, 2010’s Transference
. The vibe is that Transference
, a reactionary bit of lo-fi garage and shuffling song structures almost irritated in their defensiveness, was the expected stumble after a superb four-album run that culminated in 2007’s masterpiece Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
. The Narrative continues; They Want My Soul
is the triumphant comeback, a return to form for an American indie rock institution, the necessary shuffling of the deck – new producers, new sounds, a long and healthy break – that represents a rebirth. In the case of They Want My Soul
, however, and Spoon in general, “rebirth” is a bit of a misnomer. That’s what I love about Spoon. They’ve never given a sh
it about The Narrative. Transference
was a great record in 2010 and remains so today; They Want My Soul
very deliberately goes in a different direction from the last time we heard from Spoon, and it does so without a hint of hesitation. They Want My Soul
takes very little inspiration from its predecessor or, really, anything else in Spoon’s catalog, and is, yes, a fantastic record. Spoon, again, refuse to follow anything other than their own very peculiar muse. In this respect, They Want My Soul
is another resounding success and a firm denial of its title. The only narrative Spoon own is the one they create themselves.
The common theme on this, Spoon’s eighth album and first since their 1996 debut Telephono
to feature outside production work (from industry vets Dave Fridmann and Joe Chiccarelli) and a new member (keyboardist Alex Fischel), is space. It wallops you from the opening second of “Rent I Pay,” when that snare drum hits like an artillery shell fired in an empty warehouse, and defines the end, where it expands and contracts around the shimmery new-wave buzz of closer “New York Kiss.” Yes, space has always been a hallmark of the Spoon sound; it’s impossible not to appreciate how tightly wound the guitars are on Girls Can Tell
, or how drummer Jim Eno operates like a human timepiece on Kill The Moonlight
. Yet They Want My Soul
is more interested in toying with the space it creates between the drums and guitar, the piano and Britt Daniel’s distinctive, nasally vocals, than operating within any particular boundaries. “Inside Out” is so gorgeous, and such a landmark in Spoon’s catalog, because it makes that connection between the meticulousness of Spoon past re-emerging into a shape-shifting beast of a tune so smooth and so, so right
. Everything is still very much in control, the subtle shadings and ruffling breeze of effects painting things in a multicolored hue, but there’s a kinetic energy here and an oddball wispiness to the songs that suggests They Want My Soul
could go anywhere.
For the most part, it does. “Knock Knock Knock” scuttles around a rubber band of an acoustic guitar riff before sabotaging its groove with a burst of hideous piano and a feedback-soaked electric riff that does to the song’s easy melody what Jason does to summer camps. Spoon’s idea of a cover is the waltzy torch song “I Just Don’t Understand,” a song originally made famous by Swedish-American actress Ann-Margret in 1961 and made an effortless original by Daniel’s dazed confusion and the song’s increasingly unhinged momentum. Even when serving up the fairly rote kind of punchy pop that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
perfected on the title track or the raucous “Rainy Taxi,” there’s a playfulness to the proceedings, a fraying get-up-and-go feeling that belies how carefully constructed and produced these songs sound.
Much of the credit goes to Britt Daniel, still the easiest signifier of Spoon’s effortless image and serrated aesthetic. Whether it’s the druggy, nostalgic ode of “New York Kiss” or the bubbling, fraying funk of “Outliers,” his character is enough to subvert a song from classically good to deceptively great. “And I remember when you walked out of Garden State
/ cause you had taste, you had taste / you had no time to waste,” Daniel sings on the latter, the sarcasm seeping through, poisoning the proceedings. “Inside Out” is content in giving in, yet when “Rainy Taxi” follows, Daniel has turned the tables, defiant even: “I feel something stronger than I ever could / But if you leave you better run away for good.” It transforms that familiar ‘60s melody into something darker, realer. Spoon has never been a band to leave the studio without making that final tweak. Even Transference
, a record almost bullheaded in its ramshackle sneer, betrayed this touch. With the aid of Fridmann and Chiccarelli, and Fischel’s omnipresent keyboard, there’s an alien haze to the music here, but the flourishes never seem unnatural, or a burden on the sharp melodies. It sounds like Spoon, but strangely, rightly different.
On “Do You,” Daniel lets us have it both ways: the jangly, simple handclaps adorning perhaps Spoon’s most unabashedly straightforward love letter; his backing vocals scream in the background, while he pleads: “Do you want to get understood / do you want one thing or are you looking for sainthood? Do you run when it’s just getting good? Or do you, do you do you…” Daniel’s voice has never torn itself apart as exquisitely as it does here. Daniel and Spoon’s ability to hide a well of emotions in angular riffs and clockwork song structures has been one of the things it’s taken me longest to appreciate in their work, but that discovery is part of what makes their sound so easy to come back to and explore, enriching along the way. With “Do You,” there is no veil. There’s no escaping the emotion in Daniel’s voice or the rest of the band, on “Do You” or throughout the rest of They Want My Soul
. When “New York Kiss” closes things out in a haze of stale drinks and faded concrete, you can feel Spoon giving way to something new. “I come fast / I look past / and I know that it won’t get to me at all until I go there,” Daniel sings. “New York Kiss” is set in the past, but the present informs everything. Spoon remains a band untethered to trends and narratives, beholden to nothing more than their own indelible sound, something that stretches back decades and remains distinctively elusive. They Want My Soul
chases that sound far past anything Spoon have done to date in their careers. It’s a chase I hope never ends.