Spoon got big by getting small. On 2001’s Girls Can Tell, the first in a streak of aughts classics that saw the Austin rock band gain exponentially more fans with each new release, “getting small” meant returning to an independent label after a famously ill-fated stint in the majors. As if doubling down, they quickly followed Girls Can Tell with an album that applied a less-is-more approach to the songs themselves. On Kill The Moonlight, released 20 years ago this Saturday, the sounds that aren’t there are as important as the ones that are. You could make an argument that the most significant instrument on the album is the tambourine. Then again, every element feels significant when there are so few of them in the mix, and this is an album that made every last whisper count.
A critical sensation and a modest sales success, Girls Can Tell had been a rare win for a band that, at the time, was mostly known as one of countless indie-to-major cautionary tales. Telephono, their 1996 debut for indie standard-bearer Matador, flopped hard. Somehow they still managed a jump to Elektra for 1998’s perennially underrated A Series Of Sneaks, only to be neglected, dropped, and utterly humiliated within four months. After licking their wounds for a while, Spoon signed with Merge Records, a respected indie label on the rise. More importantly, inspired by the likes of Elvis Costello and the Supremes, they zeroed in on a sound of their own, aptly described by Pop Matters as “a timeless melding of posh Motown prettiness, post-punk rumble ‘n’ shake, indie rock irony, and classic songwriting chops.” Rather than just another band ripping off the Pixies and Wire, Spoon were now a unique offering within the Y2K indie rock landscape, and people were beginning to respond. “Things didn’t feel like an unmitigated disaster, basically, so that was cool,” singer-songwriter Britt Daniel told Under The Radar a few years back. “That inspired me and made me want to get something out quickly.”
Seeking somewhere less sweltering than Texas to disappear for the summer, on the advice of friends he holed up in an apartment in New London, Connecticut. In a recent video short produced by the band, Daniel explained, “I liked that it was a couple hours from New York City, so I could drive down and go see my friends but then just basically be in this town around no one. And I was sitting in this apartment and just writing all day long.” He caught a wave of inspiration and started recording demos that barely seemed to require any further window dressing, presaging the sound Spoon would embrace on LP4. When not working on his own music, he was listening to Suburban Light by Merge labelmates the Clientele: “It’s a lonely-feeling record, and that’s where my head was at when I was writing these songs.”
Unlike the elegiac Suburban Light, Kill The Moonlight swaggers too hard to come off as lonely, even though the production is all about empty space. It is an album on which howling rock ‘n’ roll collides with avant-garde minimalism, one defined as much by pounding piano as the unkempt guitar eruptions you’d expect from a band on Superchunk’s label. In attempting to make something weirder and noisier than Girls Can Tell, Spoon stripped their soulful new sound to the bone and built it back up sparingly, with the utmost restraint. The album is clean and surgical yet infused with a roughshod urgency, in part because producer Mike McCarthy’s six-week window of availability was cut down to four when Jim Eno’s tape machine required repairs. (McCarthy was busy with fellow Austin rockers — and former Merge artists — …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead recording Source Tags & Codes, a gloriously overblown album that stands as Kill The Moonlight’s sonic opposite. Get you a man who can do both.)
Kill The Moonlight begins with “Small Stakes,” a study in tension and release that only sort of gets around to the release. In his bio for the album, Matador’s Gerard Cosloy (whose boutique label 12XU released Kill The Moonlight in Europe) compared it to Suicide, and the electronic pulse at the song’s spine definitely gives off Alan Vega vibes. But the keyboard in “Small Stakes” is doled out in jarring stabs rather than the hypnotic smoothness of something like “Dream Baby Dream.” It’s all feral hand percussion and frenetic digital kick drum and staccato organ chords, fit for a ballpark but isolated in a lab (read: Eno’s garage) by rock ‘n’ roll mad scientists. Daniel mutters and growls against self-protective thinking: “Small stakes tell you that there’s nothing can do/ Can’t think big, can’t think past one or two.” Spoon put his message into action, carving out new sonic territory that plays like a hyperreal version of the claustrophobic mundane. He also declares, “I don’t dig the Stripes but I’ll go for Har Mar,” a rash assessment he later reconsidered. When Eno’s drum kit finally enters at the end, it’s not a conventional beat drop but a controlled fireworks display of fills that adds to the song’s pressure rather than relieving it.
“The Way We Get By” is less inventive but even more inspired. While Daniel details an outsider’s life defined by drugs, petty crime, and sex soundtracked by Iggy Pop, his band coalesces into one of the purest expressions of what became known as the Spoon aesthetic. In this case old-timey parlour piano is flanked by spunky bass, handclaps, tambourine, and a crisply bashed-out beat, all returning to Daniel’s unshakable refrain, “That’s the way we get by.” This was a throwback, but one that felt entirely out of step with the other retro sounds popping off at the time. As my fellow geriatric millennial Pete Buttigieg can confirm, the song was an instant classic, and hardly the only one on Kill The Moonlight.
From there, Spoon maintain composure even as they veer from the sparse beatbox and falsetto groove of “Stay Don’t Go” to the ripshit live-band runaway train “Jonathon Fisk” — a fictionalized version of a classmate who used to bully Daniel because he liked new wave better than metal, who then grew up to become a Spoon superfan. (“Religion don’t mean a thing/ It’s just another way to be right-wing” is up there among the album’s most quotable lines — and was, as I originally forgot to note, actually quoted from the Damned’s “Anti-Pope.”) There are hard-slapping piano rockers like the brass-blasted “Someone Something,” which makes desperation sound cool, and the slinky “All The Pretty Girls Go To The City,” which makes aloof suaveness feel attainable. There are weirdo ballads like the hollowed-out, noise-bombed “Paper Tiger” and the gorgeous harmonic slow-build “Vitorrio E.” On songs like “Don’t Let It Get You Down” and “Back To The Life,” every sound makes an impact within the skeletal foundation, and every acoustic strum feels like it’s happening in the room with you. Altogether it’s a remarkable feat of production, performance, and songwriting, topped off by a singer whose unbothered personal gravity makes these experiments feel like classic rock.
Kill The Moonlight was an even bigger hit than Girls Can Tell. Spoon sold out their whole tour. “The Way We Get By” made it to MTV2 and The O.C. They were hitting their stride just as accessible underground rock was emerging as a commercial force. By the time Gimme Fiction dropped in 2005, labelmates Arcade Fire had raised the tide for Merge and indie rock in general, and “I Turn My Camera On” became an inescapable ad jingle. In 2007, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga debuted in the top 10 and went on to sell more than 300,000 copies, numbers that far eclipsed this album’s meager first-year tally of 40,000. Many more brilliant records followed as Spoon survived and thrived during one trendy sea change after the next, swapping out members and producers but maintaining that essential core of Daniel and Eno. You could pretty easily make the case that they’re the greatest rock band of their generation. And for me, Kill The Moonlight remains the crown jewel of that discography, the album that rewired my listening 20 years ago and continues to surprise and thrill me to this day.