There’s a moment on Spoon’s new song “Outlier” where Britt Daniel sneaks a sharp splinter of film criticism into one of the tough, terse, personal songs that Spoon is so known for: “I remember when you walked out of Garden State / You had taste, you had taste / You had no time to waste.” Imagine Zach Braff’s face when he hears that song — because you know he’ll hear it. As a guy who was making slick, broadly appealing indie rock in the early ’00s, Daniel probably indirectly made some money off of Garden State, and Joe Chiccarelli, the longtime music-biz insider who co-produced “Outlier,” previously produced the life-changing Shins’ Wincing the Night Away. Point is, that tossed-off dis, really just an aside in the song, is a potential bridge-burner, and most big-indie frontmen in 2014 aren’t in the business of burning bridges, at least not consciously. But Daniel has always carried himself above the fray, with a slight sneer in his voice and a clear sense of purpose in his melodies. And if he wants to say “fuck that” about something, he’s going to do it. That’s a minor moment on Spoon’s new album They Want My Soul, but it’s a telling one, and it shows off the haughty confidence that has always set both Daniel and his band apart. Spoon carry themselves with a certain strut, and it’s been too long since we’ve heard that strut in action.
When was the last time you listened to Transference? Because you should listen to Transference again. When Spoon released their last album, early in 2010, the world responded with a resounding shrug. That can be a problem when a band is too good for too long: The world can learn to take them for granted. Spoon’s style didn’t really evolve between 2007’s great Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Transference, but then, it didn’t really need to. Spoon had been on a ridiculous hot streak for an entire decade, perfecting their songwriting style by stripping away everything that wasn’t absolutely needed, focusing on choppy rhythm and mathematically precise melodies, pushing Daniel’s hiccup-and-gasp delivery all the way to the front of the mix, deploying studio tricks with such self-assurance that you wouldn’t even notice them until maybe the 10th listen. Listen to Transference now, and you’ll hear a band very much in control of their own vision, and there are so many magical moments in there. The layered harmonies on “Before Destruction,” the staccato guitars on “Is Love Forever?,” the halfway-to-rockabilly riffage of “Got Nuffin” — the riches are there, and they’re obvious. But maybe Spoon needed to go away for four years to let us hear them. And now that they’re back after that long break, all those tricks and ideas sound as fresh as they did back on Girls Can Tell and Kill The Moonlight.
It’s not like Spoon have stopped trying to push forward on They Want My Soul. On the album, the band worked with two producers, both of them extremely disparate choices and both of them completely new to the band. The aforementioned Chiccarelli has the sort of long, diverse resume that you inevitably build up when you spend decades behind the boards; his past collaborators range from Oingo Boingo to Jason Mraz to the Strokes. He’s a professional, the type a major label might bring in to help clean up an indie band’s sound, but it’s not like Spoon’s sound needed cleaning up. The other producer is the upstate New York bugout architect Dave Fridmann, who got almost famous by helping bands like the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev make their majestic psychedelic opuses. Later on, Fridmann became the guy that bands would go to when they needed to freshen up the sounds that, they felt, were getting old, the guy to inject some neon-noise sprawl into otherwise self-contained styles. He’s served that function for bands like Sleater-Kinney and Thursday in the past, and he’s done great work with them, partly by drawing those bands into his soundworld. Chiccarelli and Fridmann couldn’t be more different, but taking a casual listen to They Want My Soul it’s almost impossible to guess who did what. Spoon’s authorial voice is that strong. They could work with Pharrell or Steve Albini or Avicii or Mutt Lange, and things probably wouldn’t change much; they’d still come out sounding like Spoon.
At this point, it doesn’t serve much function to ask where They Want My Soul fits into Spoon’s career-long worst-to-best rankings, partly because nobody can agree on what the best Spoon album is (Kill The Moonlight, says this guy) and partly because every album is, in one way or another, of a piece with every other album. And that’s what you need to know the most about They Want My Soul: It’s a practiced and confident piece of power-pop from a band that plays every instrument like a drum, with a singer who can project swagger even through a hungover growl — all of which is to say that it’s a Spoon album.
The drums sound incredible, maybe more incredible than they’ve sounded on any Spoon album. Jim Eno isn’t a showy drummer — he hardly ever even plays fills — but his hits are so crushingly hard and precise and in-the-pocket that he could’ve walked out of one of DJ Premier’s dreams. The melodies are full and robust, and they dance more than they usually do; the choruses of “Do You” and “Inside Out” show a level of old-school pop classicism that the band usually only hints at, while “I Just Don’t Understand” actually is an old-school pop classic (made famous by Ann-Margret in 1961, covered by the Beatles) retrofitted to slot right in with the band’s aesthetic. The lyrics are as mysterious and elusive as ever. There’s talk of breakups and New York and falling-apart relationships and invasive outside influences and walking out of Garden State, and the lines make sense in isolation, but they never cohere into a grand narrative. There are more bursts of noisy backwards keyboard than usual, and it’s hard to tell whether that’s because of Fridmann or because of the band’s newest member Alex Fischel, a keyboardist and guitarist and veteran of Daniel’s really great Divine Fits side project. But those keyboards never rip the songs open. Instead, they’re like a new toy for the band to play with.
They Want My Soul isn’t Spoon’s major-label debut; that would be 1997’s sophomore joint A Series Of Sneaks, a casualty in the post-grunge-boom thrashings of the Elektra A&R department. But it’s Spoon’s first album on a major after a long and fruitful stint on Merge, and so it’s delightful how little the band switches things up, even when they try to move left. It’s especially delightful that the album starts with the slashing, muscular “Rent I Pay,” a clear statement of intent that rides its sinuous groove as hard as a groove could possibly be ridden. “Rent I Pay” is, to my ears, the band’s finest song since “Don’t You Evah” at least, and it sends a message that the rest of the album drives home. This band is going to keep cranking out wiry, cocksure, intense little gems for as long as they can keep it together. We’d to well not to take them for granted this time.