It’s the dog days of summer, the time when vacation season has come and gone. The kids are going back to school, the world seems like it’s going to hell in a hand basket, and the sun’s so hot that you’re too delirious to point out that that saying doesn’t really make all that much sense. We yearn for change, an escape. But what we could really use is a breeze. Surprisingly, this is where a time-tested band of indie rockers comes in. They Want My Soul, the latest album by Spoon, is not only a breath of fresh air; it could be the cure for your onset of late-summertime sadness.
Who, you ask? Well, the band Spoon has been one of the best and most consistent bands over the past 20-plus years, and their most recent album has some of the strongest material that they have ever recorded. Believe it or not, Spoon began all the way back in 1993 as a collaboration between singer/guitarist Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno. Since then, the band’s gone through several bassists and keyboard players, but they’ve featured Eric Harvey on keyboard, percussion, guitar and backing vocals since 2004 and Rob Pope of The Get Up Kids on bass since 2007. For They Want My Soul, the band also welcomed Alex Fischel of Britt Daniel’s side project, The Divine Fits, on keyboard and guitar.
Typically catchy yet rarely flashy, Spoon is the kind of band that sometimes falls under the radar of the general public. Despite being a longtime critical indie darling and a frequenter of TV and movie soundtracks, they tend to be underappreciated, though never hated. Whenever I’m with a group of people and one of their songs pops up on, say, Pandora, or, perhaps, in the movie Horrible Bosses, people tend to say something to the effect of: “Who is this song by? It’s good”. And then I say, “I know; it’s Spoon,” as if that’s explanation enough. All of their songs are at least good, most of their albums are great, and the sum total of their work is staggering. So, what makes them so appealing? The answer lies in both They Want My Soul and in their impressive discography.
Their first record, Telephono, originally released in 1996 but re-released along with the 1997 EP, Side Effects, is little remembered but worth revisiting. It’s raw and much noisier than what we would go on to think of as “vintage Spoon”. Britt Daniel was just 25 when it was released, and his youth shows. Daniel is known, among other things, for his emotion, but one of his greatest virtues is his restraint, his even-keel. Not here. On Telephono, Daniel seems angst-y, and the sound is as rambunctious as it is undisciplined. However, it’s important to note that Daniel displayed the ability to be angry without being whiny, a trait that, to my mind, differentiated him from many of his peers. Telephono is probably the only Spoon record that bears much resemblance to punk rock, and it’s certainly the only one that has even a faint grunge influence. In 1998, Spoon dropped its sophomore release, A Series of Sneaks. From the first chords of opening track “Utilitarian,” it’s evident that it’s going to be an infinitely more polished record, and really, it’s a much improved effort all the way around. Although the heavy rhythm guitar of Telephono is still prominent, A Series of Sneaks is more advanced, featuring a more low-key feel, quality hooks, and a newfound wit. Whereas Telephono sounds like a band trying to get noticed, A Series of Sneaks sounds like a band trying to grow.
With 2001’s Girls Can Tell, Spoon experienced a shift that played an important part in their development. On the surface, Girls Can Tell is cleverly arranged, and features a little more dance grooves, a little bit of R&B. Sonically, it positively makes a difference, but what really sets it apart is that it was Daniel’s first attempt at writing personal songs, the band’s first at creating vulnerable music. Daniel cites “Anything You Want” as the first time that he tried to write lyrics that really pertained to his life and that actually meant something. It’s a delightful yet melancholy tune, the kind that went on to become the band’s specialty.
Spoon followed up Girls Can Tell a year later with Kill The Moonlight, and that’s when they really started hitting their sweet spot. On this record, Spoon consciously mixed things up and started thinking outside of a box of their own making. They wanted to rely less on guitars and experiment more with other instruments. On the opening track, “Small Stakes,” Daniel sings and plays piano, an instrument he had recently even learned how to play. There’s an understated, minimalist feel to the album that garnered more praise than ever from critics and, for the first time, attention from the mainstream. The lead single, the everyman anthem, “The Way We Get By,” appeared in commercials and popular shows, such as The O.C. Suddenly, a band that once prided itself on playing no-nonsense rock n’ roll became cool by embracing pianos, tambourines and percussion.
In 2005, Spoon released Gimmie Fiction, a record that was both lyrically more adventurous and featured the band’s most straightforward single to date. “I Turn My Camera On,” a groovy, falsetto laden number is the apogee of funky dance rock. It’s the farthest Spoon has plunged into R&B, and was once featured in an episode of Friday Night Lights. The funky feel helped propel the band’s popularity, but the album also touched on a wide range of subject matter, such as nuances of relationships, the band’s struggle with the creative process, Daniel’s distrust in religion, and his fear of getting his soul taken away. In 2007, Spoon’s popularity crested with the release of Ga Ga Ga Ga. The record was, if not a critical peak, then certainly a commercial one. It’s by far their most catchy and accessible album in their discography. Spearheaded by the irresistible feel-good single, “The Underdog,” with its soaring percussion, handclaps and hummable tune, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga became a Billboard Top 10 selling album. Fun, digestible songs like “The Underdog” and “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” make it an easy album to like, but it’s the moody (“The Ghost of You Lingers”), the groovy (“Don’t You Evah”) and the downbeat (Don’t Make Me Target”) songs that make it an album to truly admire.
Three years after the success of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon dropped Transference, a largely subdued affair. The album definitely isn’t bad; however, it lacks the vibrancy of its predecessor. Transference was self-produced, much of it came from Daniel messing around and making guitar alterations by himself in his basement. His solitude is evident as Daniel often sounds removed throughout Transference. With that said, the record does have some beautiful, sad moments, such as in “Out Go the Lights”. I’m also particularly fond of the 1970s throwback track, “The Mystery Zone”. But after years of the non-stop grind of recording and touring, Spoon did seem a bit burnt out.
Now, after a four-year hiatus, Spoon has returned with They Want My Soul, the perfect record to remind us all of everything Spoon is capable of when they’re at their best. For They Want My Soul, unlike the band’s previous work, Daniel wanted the band to bring in outside voices to explore new ground. First, Spoon recorded with producer Joe Chiccarelli, whose previous work has ranged from indie rockers, like The White Stripes, The Shins and Manchester Orchestra to mainstream acts, such as Elton John and U2; however, they ultimately chose Dave Fridmann, who, in recent years, has produced or mixed unique and critically acclaimed albums for Tame Impala, MGMT and The Flaming Lips. It was he who Daniel credits for influencing the aesthetic and fleshed out sound of the album.
One of the most impressive things about They Want My Soul is how balanced and well sequenced it is, a fact that becomes more noticeable with each listen. The album opens with “Rent I Pay,” a warm single that cannily combines crunchy power chords with a driving bass line, quickly setting a decidedly different tone than Transference. Simple but not simplistic, “Rent I Pay” is the perfect upbeat, laid-back song for indie rock radio, and it also re-establishes Spoon as the average guys just trying to get by like everybody else. On the slow burning “Inside Out,” at the behest of Daniel, Spoon tried something new and implemented programmed beats, orchestra strings and lovely harps to create arguably the most beautiful song in the band’s history. Afterwards, “Rainy Taxi” picks up the pace with a groovy, bluesy rock tune that adds instrumental layers and builds for nearly a minute before it’s joined by Daniel’s crisp vocals. It’s a defiant, emotional song about working up the confidence strength to move on; the unease over that notion is noted by subtle little quirks, such as discordant piano strikes in the distance.
Spoon follows the dark, stormy night of “Rainy Taxi” with a breezy, poppy track (“Do You”) that lightens the mood without feeling lightweight. But then, on “Knock Knock Knock,” Spoon veers back into more musically complex territory in a way that recalls Pink Floyd. Daniel’s passionate voice is accompanied, among other things, by an acoustic guitar, electric drums and an electric guitar that produces some wicked feedback. And that’s not to mention the haunting backup vocals and the unconventionally timed whistling! The last few drumbeats segue seamlessly into the most surprising song of the record, the new wave, soul searching “Outlier”. “Outlier” is Spoon at their most keyboard driven. It also features a maraca, courtesy of drummer Jim Eno. The song imbues a feeling of paranoia that at times sounds as if it could be the score of a thriller, but on They Want My Soul, Spoon always knows when to throw in handclaps, a funky bass line and some “la-la-las” or “nah-nah-nahs” to even it out. The title track is the most outwardly humorous track of the album, in which Daniel poetically rattles off different people who wants his soul. Card sharks, street preachers, sellers, palm readers, and even Kill The Moonlight bully Jonathan Fisk, make the list. “I Just Don’t Understand” might be the worst song on the record, but it’s still a pretty charming dark little piano ditty. The album closes with two of its strongest songs, an expert amalgam of soul, blues, pop and indie rock called “Let Me Be Mine,” and my personal favorite, “New York Kiss”. The latter is a silky smooth, synth-streaked surge of nostalgia that gives you the option to dance along or just sit back and take it all in.
They Want My Soul is an achievement, for a number of reasons, many of which underline the remarkable evolution of Spoon. Once a band that played songs that focused more on aesthetic than substance, Spoon has progressed into a band that has the dexterity to find a brilliant balance between the two. On They Want My Soul, they are as meticulous and technically proficient as ever, but the lyrics are affecting, personal and carry weight. While long critically acclaimed, Spoon’s willingness to experiment with their stripped-down sound has always been underappreciated. Although there’s never been anything as drastic as a “Spoon Goes Pop” or “Spoon Goes Country” album (nor should there be), they’ve consistently found ways to add new tricks to their repertoire, and move in different directions at their own pace.
On They Want My Soul, Britt Daniel sings with such soul and the band as a whole plays with such vitality that it’s clear Spoon isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The songs of the great band, though sometimes dark and laced with existential dread, are overall even-keeled in a way that tells you this, whatever it is, too shall pass. We don’t need the escape as much as we think we do. We’ll get through it.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He’s currently writes about television for Voice of TV, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. Additionally, he’s written about sports, pop culture and politics for Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Voices,The College Fix, and The Wine and Cheese Crowd, among other places. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.