Spoon has not released an album for some time, almost 3 years. It would be an understatement to say that they possess a dedicated following which has been clamoring for new material in that relatively substantial gap. And for good reason, Spoon has released more than their share of stellar albums, and a couple indie-classics, and are commonly regarded as one of the best bands of the 00’s. Their latest musical incarnation is Transference; and unlike earlier albums, this one is produced by Britt Daniel and Jim Eno (a.k.a. the lead singer/writer of all the songs and the drummer). For this reason much was wondered about what this approach this album was going to take.
The album opener immediately strikes one as odd, not only for Spoon but for any band. It’s a sluggish track recorded with a lo-fi sound, titled “Before Destruction,” and it is an overall subdued song and devoid of the vigor usually inherent within their openers. It is also apparent that they are taking on larger life issue as one can tell by Britts opening lines, “Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty / Everyone loves you for your black eye.” It’s most definitely an atypical choice to start with, and surely designed to catch listeners off guard and communicate that this album’s aim might be unalike their previous ones. Yes, its true that on their prior albums they never began with complete rompers, however, their opening songs always had a sort of distinct-catchy-inertia that made them a solid beginning choice (like with “Don’t Make me a Target” on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, and “The Beast and the Dragon Adored” off Gimme Fiction). Yet this song feels distinctly more like an album closer, and while there is value in catching your audience off guard, it seems outweighed by the awkwardness of the choice. As the next song begins, we quickly see that the tone of introspection continues, it’s a very short song titled “Is Love Forever?” in which Britt questions “When I’m older, start to wonder was that love or instinct working? Have I felt it ever? What’s the object? Is love forever?”
The first song that really speaks ‘Spoon’ is the 3rd, “The Mystery Zone.” It has that great crisp, swinging, deceptively simple, toe-tapping rhythm that we have come to expect, and love, with this band. It is what they do so well; they can sit in the pocket like few others can. There is a cool minimization to only drums in the song, at which point it appears like maybe an interesting little psych-jam is in the works, but then this momentum is suddenly cut and the song reverts back to its old form anticlimactically. They are indeed being mysterious, but at 5 minutes, the song is just awkwardly long for a relatively in-dynamic song; and then ends so abruptly, as if to make it overtly clear that the normal rules have been temporarily abandoned.
“Who Makes Your Money” is the next number and it arrives with great drum and vocal interplay, with cool periphery sonic effects and just the right amount of subtle psychedelia throughout. It might be the gem of the album; it’s a great example of their ability to effortless groove. In the song the lyric ‘Who Makes Your Money’ is recorded, and played numerous times, but is effected so that at times it sounds like “Who makes your mind?” This juxtapositions of meaning achieved through a mixing technique is just wonderfully effective and is edivence of the production skills of Britt and Jim. This song also has a great breakdown/closeout, with the astute addition of a shaker, which adds a great Spoon’ish swagger. It seems that in this song they followed their former songwriting techniques, and the results were solid.
Overall though, the A-side is a little bit of an emotional downer and seems peculiarly designed, although none of the songs stand out as clearly “bad” and it may contain the best single track. Spoon’s best attribute has always their grasp of the rock-simple, and their ability to mold that time-and-time-again into songs that strut with style and class. Yet I think in a couple tracks on the A side they replace this grasp of the simple with a sort of subtle forced minimalism & deviation from their past.
In the end the B-side comes off as the better planned of the two. Although, like the first side, it has a pensively reflective sound to it throughout. It begins with “I Saw the Light”, which kicks off with great swing. Then oddly it morphs completely, midway through, into a quickly paced instrumental jam of sorts with a grand piano leading the way. It’s a great jam and that builds well and the incorporation of the grand piano is a choice addition, and it’s one of the surprises of the album, but unusual in the way it’s almost hidden behind another song within the middle of the album. It’s another instance of how this album is a conscious practice of the unorthodox. ”Trouble comes Running,” the second song of the B-side, is another song with a lo-fi feeling to it, but this time it translates better and the result is a pleasantly stomping song that contains high enthusiasm yet still has an overall hushed sound and attitude through the deceptively simple production techniques used. The sound and lyrics come off as if Britt is being forthright and reticent at the same time, which could be said of many moments within the album.
The next number, “Goodnight Laura,” is a piece with just Britt and his grand piano. It’s a pretty sleepy song, but pleasantly emotive and with that feeling that its just you and Britt in the room. It may be the first one of that manner they have recorded also. It also probably would have been the most appropriate song to end the album with, if they were interested in that sort of thing. “Out go the Lights” is a reserved song, that is classic Spoon in the way emotional sounds swirl around an unchanging beat, and upon repeated listening is a number that can grow on a listener. “Got Nuffin” is not downtempo at all, and is the closest thing to a party song on the album, although it still has a quasi-melancholy feel to it as Britt tells us he has “Got nothing to lose but darkness and shadows / Got nothing to lose but loneliness and patterns.” Even when they rock out, they are still contemplatively brooding. And while this song is a fine one, it probably would have rounded out the album better had it not been released 6 months ago as a single and been well known already.
As if in memento to the feeling of uncertainty within the album it ends with “Nobody Gets me but You,” which initially sounds like Spoon doing some sort of Talking Heads impression with electric drums and bass line interacting in a very 1980′s fashion. They began the album with a surprise, so why not end with one? Yet while it may sound 80′s, its no party song; Britt ends the song and album by asking, “Do they get me / Do they get me like you? / Nobody / Nobody / NO / Nobody.”
It is very apparent that Spoon intended to release an album here that was unalike anything done by them prior. In fact it’s an album done unlike most altogether. There are a couple lo-fi sounding songs, a couple clean-swinging “traditional Spoon” songs, a hidden jam of sorts, a song with just piano and vocals, not to mention the anomalous track ordering. What is so odd about this is that the production technique and philosophy varies from song to song, something most of us are totally unaccustomed to. Spoon once sounded like well-crafted garage-lo-fi, but not since 1998′s A Series of Sneaks, since then it’s been a consistently waxy & polished sound. So to randomly jump between these two production styles, and then throw in a few novel ones, is really quite surprising.
Upon first listen most Spoon fans will be caught off guard by the subdued sound of the songs and the almost mid-life-crises feeling behind the lyrics. While people new to the band will probably either find it eclectic or just assume that this band is random by nature. With further & repeated listening, though, this album starts to reveal itself as an interesting peak into the world of a man, and a band, in a substantial period of transition, reflection, and questioning. And that amalgam of seemingly unfitting musical pieces, under the umbrella of the utter confusion inherent in moving through life, actually starts to coalesce in its own unique way. Its no wonder the album is titled Transference, with a picture of a slouching adolescent looking like he doesn’t want to be where he currently is.
All of those positives being said, Spoon has created better albums, and they probably could have profited from the check and balance that a producer (one whose not also in the band) brings to an album. However, that seems like it would have flown in the face of the mentality of this work, or possibly the necessity of this work for the band members themselves. So in conclusion, while this album is good – for Spoon, it’s not great. Yet that is okay, one may happily keep listening to Spoon’s Transference and enjoy it as an observance of uncertainty put to music. Nevertheless, for Spoon’s sake, and ours, let’s hope that they are in Transference towards something, and won’t remain in doubtful limbo for the next album. Because they are have more musical potential than most.
By Sean Poynton Brna
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