Sunday, August 17, 2014

album review: 'they want my soul' by spoon

So here's one of the frustrating things about being a music critic, particularly if you cover indie music in any variety. Inevitably, you build up a list of indie bands that, for some reason, could have had that big mainstream breakout hit and yet never did. And on a certain level, it makes no sense: these bands might have a pop sensibility or ridiculously catchy choruses or even a sound that would fit perfectly into the mainstream but for a slightly weirder edge, and yet they've never managed to get that big hit. It's especially infuriating if you're a fan of power pop, a genre fitting between rock and pop music with huge choruses and a ridiculous amount of pop appeal, and yet always seem to get caught in the gap and never get the airplay they deserve.

And if you know indie rock, you know one of the bands that tends to leap to the top of that list is Spoon, the indie rock band that has accumulated a ton of critical acclaim over the past decade over several great albums and yet never got that breakout hit. It's a more than a little frustrating, mostly because Spoon is a great melody-driven rock band with tons of guitar texture, ridiculously catchy choruses, and lyrics that are strikingly clever without being flashy about it. If anything, that's probably the reason Spoon never got that monster hit - they aren't exactly a flashy band or one that's about to switch up their style or sell out in order to break, instead content to pump out great record after great record for their devoted fanbase, from their early hard-edged albums reminiscent of the Pixies to the understated punch of their early 2000s work to their brief flirtation with the mainstream with their mid-2000s work. And yeah, you can count me among that group of newfound fans, with my favourite record probably being Girls Can Tell with Kill The Moonlight as a close second. 

As for my least favourite Spoon album... okay, here's the thing about Transference, their 2010 release that soured some of their newfound fans won after Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga - it's not a bad album, all exposed messy edges and minor chords and abrasive lyrics, but it's the sort of album where every 'imperfection' is carefully calculated, and that can resonate as a little off to me. But after that record, Spoon took another four years off and came back finally this year with They Want My Soul - how is it?

Well, it's a Spoon record, for better or for worse. This isn't so much a band that makes dramatic leaps in style than it tweaks little pieces to enhance the sound and themes. The good thing about this is that if you're a fan of Spoon, you'll inevitably like this album - but to the band's credit, it's probably one of their more accessible records and I'd place it alongside some of their better albums, ironically by going in the exact opposite direction as those greats. 

So to explain this, let's talk about the instrumentation and production - and look, if you know Spoon, you know what to expect. Solid guitar-driven grooves, warm basslines, drum progressions that tend to be more interesting that anyone ever expects, the occasional fluttering keyboard line or strings arrangement or staccato blast of distortion. And the mixes will be solid and polished - although this time around Spoon does bring a little more noisy grit, which I always appreciate - with songs that end abruptly or feel a little defiantly small-scale in comparison with the expansive mix. Where this album makes the biggest changes are in the mix balance - namely, that Spoon feels like a 'bigger' band sonically, not so much brawny but taking up more space. It also has some of Spoon's most synthetic elements to date: the ghostly, ambient synths and distant percussion on 'Inside Out', the hollow whoosh of the beat on 'Knock Knock Knock' balances against acoustic guitars, whistles, chaotic rushes of strings, and spiky buzzsaw distortion, the echoing synths balancing against the Spanish guitar and hard-edged electric riff on 'Outlier' to the whirling rush of textured keyboards, xylophones, and wispy guitars on 'New York Kiss' which comes together phenomenally well. One of Spoon's greatest strengths as a band is that they've typically drawn from the pop music template well-established in the 60s and 70s for building melodies, which lends their songs a firm foundation - but at the same time, when they strike to emulate it too closely, it leads to some tracks that toe the edge of forgettable, the least interesting being 'I Just Don't Understand', a cover of an old Ann-Margret song from 1961 that is done well but doesn't really stand out.

Fortunately, you can't say that about the vocals, which are characteristic Britt Daniel all the way through and toe the fine line between impressively earnest and way too smart to be that earnest and he knows it. It helps he still throws his all into his material, and he's a good fit for the larger aesthetic of the album. I'm still not the biggest fan of his falsetto, but it's generally restrained here and rarely becomes an issue.

But now let's cut to the meat of this record: the lyrics and themes. Spoon has always had a sharp eye for lyrical nuance, and it definitely comes through here, with the themes established early on and handled with their characteristic wit, self-awareness, and sincerity. This time they're tackling themes of expectations, those we place on relationships and on those with whom we think we have relationships - like, say, with musical artists. The album's title They Want My Soul and the title track are probably the most direct references to that connection, but that 'wished-for' connection comes up in other places as well. 'Do You', for instance, is a song about a girl he spots on the street and thinks he has a connection, but then he chooses to go back inside and not approach, with the question of the song pointed inward at his own rationale for that choice - which is kind of funny, considering it's all based upon the assumption something will happen, not the reality. Those assumptions come up again on the reckless bad relationship of 'Knock Knock Knock', where the girl always returns after her expected world turns sour, or the assumed too good to last relationship of 'Rainy Taxi', or the inevitable back-and-forth of 'Let Me Be Mine'. And that's before we get to narratives that more abstract, like the opening track 'Rent I Pay' where the narrator feels he owed success and peace and yet still has to struggle, or 'Outlier', where our narrator sees a former 'cool' friend with taste who, while it's never quite articulated, became more normal. All of this is based on expectations and assumptions that are only really grounded in the narrator's current beliefs and place, which becomes the only things on which he's secure. This is set in stone by the excellent ending track 'New York Kiss', where he tries to recapture a memory of a relationship in the titular city, only to realize said memory is long gone. And then the album does something interesting in the final lyrics: a realization that he is that solitary connection to that memory, and he's just going to hold onto it and live in it regardless, where that love mattered. It's less a statement of stasis and more of purpose: even if that moment of love is all his soul can recreate, it's still special and nothing can take that away from him.

So look, I do really like this album - I like its assertions of individuality, its acknowledgements of how small those moments can be and yet important they still are. I like the richer instrumentation, the return to a rougher sound, and the fact that despite it all, Spoon remains one of the most solid and consistent indie rock bands working today. I won't say I love this album or find it all that thrilling, but then again, Spoon has never tried to be that type of band and their ability to add real drama and stakes to situations that might appear small or more mundane has always given their material a lot of humanity. So I'm going to give this album a light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. Folks, Spoon brought some soul back with their newest album - and from the looks of things, you're not taking it away from them any time soon.

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