One of the best things about Spoon has always been their subtlety. While many Pop groups these days thrive on maximalism, the most impressive aspect of frontman Britt Daniels’ songwriting has always been his ability to strip melodies down to their bare parts and still compile them into interesting textures. Spoon albums tend to follow a pattern where they get progressively more intricate before suddenly going back to basics (see: the transition between A Series of Sneaks and Kill The Moonlight or the dramatic transformation between Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Transference, their two most recent efforts).
After a four year break, Spoon have returned with They Want My Soul, their most intricately produced album yet. This, in combination with the fact that it is their first album on a major label in over 10 years, might have some fans worried, but thankfully this is the rare example of an album that manages to push the band’s sound forwards while staying entirely true to their roots. My anticipation levels for the album before its release fluctuated pretty significantly with the materials that were released from it. The past few years have seen acts like Kanye West, Boards of Canada and Arcade Fire using cryptic viral marketing (a technique generally restricted to blockbuster Hollywood films) to great success in promoting their new albums, and Spoon decided to join in on the bandwagon to hype up their return.
All the promotional videos featuring snippets of songs and random images of suburban life were incredibly enticing, which is why I was disappointed when “Rent I Pay” was released as the lead single. Now, I know that this website only promotes good music, and I know you must be confused reading this review which is billing this album as ‘Best New Music’ so I will just get this out of the way now, “Rent I Pay” sucks. Plain and simple. It’s boring, it’s repetitive, the chord progression is very simple and generic, and the lyrical message is muddled and unclear. In other words, it feels like a tossed-off B-side, not a lead single and album opener for a band that hasn’t released a record since 2010.
Thankfully, the other two singles released, “Do You” and “Inside Out” both turned out to be excellent, absolutely stunning pieces of Pop music construction. The latter in particular has already found a special place in my heart, with its softly thumping drum machine, quiet psychedelic atmosphere and ghostly harp playing. Its place as the second track on the album serves a similar function as “The Ghost of You Lingers” on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, being a dramatically different, significantly more mellow counterpart to the more conventional (and in this case, dreadfully boring) opening track.
They Want My Soul sees the band working with two different producers they have never worked with before, the more Pop-oriented Joe Chiccarelli (The Shins, The Strokes, Jason Mraz) and indie/psychedelic architect Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Sleater Kinney). Both producers have noticeable contributions, but there is nothing that sounds out of place on a Spoon album. One new sonic texture that is particularly noticeable is that of the synthesizer, which as far as I can remember has not been used on any of Spoon’s previous works (although it was a large part of the 2012 debut album from The Divine Fits, the excellent and criminally underheard supergroup Daniels formed with Handsome Furs/Wolf Parade member Dan Boeckner).
The synth’s most powerful moment comes on the album highlight “Outliers”, a spooky new wave outfit which features a clever line bashing one of my least favorite movies of all time. “I remember when you walked out of Garden State/ ‘Cause you had taste, you had taste/ You had no time to waste”, Daniels sings – his voice overdubbed, demonstrating another technique that Spoon have used sparingly in the past. But as the layers of guitar and keyboard pile on, familiar Spoon hallmarks like handclaps and reverb drenched backing vocals appear and quell the unpleasant feeling that these new producers have managed to change the band’s sound.
And here lies one of the greatest strengths of the new album; any time something appears that feels a little too Pop, or a little too mainstream, something distinctively, undeniably Spoon comes crashing in full force to appease the die-hard fans. On “Knock Knock Knock”, some phased-out disco-y drums and trippy whistling accent acoustic guitar, while ambient noises and string samples rise and fall in the background. By the time it gets to the mellow guitar breakdown about two minutes in, it might appear that the producer is trying a little bit too hard to make it interesting, but a strategically placed bit of lo-fi, incredibly distorted guitar comes out of nowhere, along with Daniels’ signature reverb-drenched backing vocals, and it’s hard not to crack a smile.
Besides the aforementioned “Outliers”, the track that stands out the most as a perfect mix of the band and producer’s instincts is probably “I Just Don’t Understand”, a minor key blues that begins in such a low-fi, stripped down manner that it almost feels like a demo. But the layers build so subtly that it’s hard to notice just how much more complex the track feels at the end. The lyrics are very simple and straight-forward, with pretty much every other line ending with the title of the song, but Daniels’ gravelly voice is so incredibly soulful and powerful that it hits with more power each time it is repeated. It might not be obvious on the first listen, but it’s probably one of the best things Daniels has ever come up with.
In it’s worst moments, They Want My Soul does the exact opposite: the production actually improves on what would otherwise be a not-so-impressive track. If it wasn’t for the groovy wordless chorus and quiet analog synths on “Let Me Be Mine”, the track might feel a tad bit too much like a retread of the now-classic “I Summon You”. I don’t think it’s really worth bringing up “Rent I Pay” again, but the organ on that song might just be the only thing that saves it from being necessary to skip every time you want to listen to the record all the way through. But let me just clarify once again: these are not bad songs, I am merely judging them by the incredibly high standard that Mr. Daniels has built for himself.
They Want My Soul is definitely not their best album, but it utilizes the best aspects of the band at all the right moments. When it works, it really works. There are so many moments of pure sonic bliss that by the time you finish, you probably won’t even remember the underwhelming tracks. It is altogether a little bit too familiar, and jarringly different from the norm, all at the same time, which is a bizarre accomplishment all on its own. With each new release, Daniels cements himself even more as one of the defining Pop music songwriters of this generation, fearless and consistently refusing to conform to today’s standards. And to be completely honest, Spoon recycling old material is still infinitely better than half the major-label Pop bands out there, so we should just be glad that they’re back.
Purchase: Spoon – They Want My Soul (iTunes)
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