[sic] Magazine

Spoon – They Want My Soul

It’s hard to talk about Spoon without making reference to the art of music production. Spoon seem as interested in the way their music can be coloured by production as the actual character and content of Britt Daniel’s songs (y’know: chords and lyrics and stuff). A Spoon song doesn’t really become a Spoon song until it’s chopped and screwed in the studio – until they’ve been able to stand back, primp and poke the instrumentation and effects, transforming their fundamentally basic rock ‘n’ soul into something that pops.

Previous album Transference played on the contrast between the raw and the cooked, between demo recordings like ‘Trouble Come Running’ and studio-sheen toss-offs like ‘Is Love Forever’. Somehow the whole amounted to more than the sum of the often-sketchy parts, and that record includes three of my favourite Spoon songs to date: ‘The Mystery Zone’, ‘Written In Reverse’ and ‘Out Go The Lights’. Though it may not be their strongest album, Transference re-introduced the rough ‘n’ ready experimentalism of Kill The Moonlight, contrasting nicely against Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’s more chart-friendly orientation.

Unfortunately, on eighth album They Want My Soul, the contrast between the styles of the two producers just doesn’t work. On the one hand we have the relative polish of Joe Chiccarelli (Alanis Morissette, My Morning Jacket, Morrissey) and on the other we have Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, MGMT) and his tendency to donkey with every sound until the songs seem to be eating themselves alive trying to grab your attention. Trouble is, when you draw attention to the fact you’re trying really hard to draw attention, the effect falls flat. Maybe bringing fifth member Alex Fischel (Divine Fits) into the fold has meant one too many pairs of ears to listen to the mixes and offer feedback on where the songs are going, and one too many pairs of hands to clutter the songs with guitar and keyboard parts that don’t really need to be there. In short, once you start scrutinising the songs on They Want My Soul, not much stands up.

This scrutiny starts as early as a few minutes in, when single ‘Rent I Pay’ ends and ‘Inside Out’ begins. Why the hell has the album been sequenced like this? No matter how many times I listen, I cannot fathom why they chose to put ‘Inside Out’ in the second spot. ‘Rent I Pay’ is far from being a great song, but as an album opener, it does its job. ‘Inside Out’ is more of a side B zone-out jam, even an album closer, than a song to build on the momentum of ‘Rent I Pay’. Chances are it’s in the second spot because it’s one of Britt Daniel’s recent favourites, but it just doesn’t work here. Maybe they were trying to recreate the masterful one-two of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’s ‘Don’t Make Me A Target’ and ‘The Ghost Of You Lingers’? Who knows. All I know is that because they flub things so heinously early on, especially after a four-year wait for this album, I immediately become suspicious of the whole enterprise, which is a crying shame. To call my initial listens of They Want My Soul a crushing disappointment would be an understatement.

‘Rainy Taxi’, despite its shruggingly shit title, would have made a much better track two, tightening the flex-and-release tension built up during ‘Rent I Pay’ until it reaches panic-attack intensity. The middle eight is a blinder, too. On its own terms, ‘Rainy Taxi’ is probably one of They Want My Soul’s finest songs. The tight strut of the rhythm section, the tremolo guitar textures, the off-key piano abuse in the second half – it all works convincingly then fades out before outstaying its welcome. Second single ‘Do You’ is similarly strong, the impassioned strain in Daniel’s voice a real heart-melter, evoking someone railing against good times coming to an end.

‘Knock Knock Knock’, though an interesting experiment shot through with attention-grabbing production flourishes, has one too many of producer Dave Fridmann’s bells and (literally) whistles. Some of them work, like the sinister, Radiohead-style string builds and the electric shocks of distorted guitar – but those fucking whistles! Did they record them as a joke and then forget to mute the track? Whoever decided to leave them in needs to be banished to the land of Mumford & Sons. For a band as meticulous as Spoon to drop the ball like this is unforgiveable. In short, it’s really annoying and almost ruins a good tune.

In the second half of the album, dominated by the songs recorded with Joe Chiccarelli according to a recent NPR interview, the band seem preoccupied with nailing a groove at the expense of songwriting points of interest. The rhythm section doesn’t do much other than hop in a pocket and nuzzle around for four minutes. The guitars and keys perform cartwheels, and Britt riffs on his usual trick of using his awesome voice to detract from the vague fluff of his lyrics. And there’s a cover of Ann-Margret’s ‘I Just Don’t Understand’. Maybe the second half of the album is where the magic lies and I’m just too pissed off by the mis-steps in the first half to continue paying much attention.

An album is just an album, but Spoon seem to care deeply about the impact of their craft and the longevity of their releases. I still think Spoon are a great band, but every time I play this I almost shout “No, no, NO!” when ‘Inside Out’ comes on. Admittedly I can rejig the track order in iTunes, but in my stubborn refusal to believe Spoon made such a crappy sequencing decision, I keep listening to the original track order just in case there’s something I’m missing. Maybe I’m wrong? Maybe I have no idea how to sequence an album. Maybe Spoon, who have made seven previous albums, many of which are amazing, know better than I do how to sequence an album.

A lyrical thread in ‘Outlier’ comes to mind: “I remember when you walked out of Garden State cos / You had taste, you had taste / You had no time to waste.” As much as I want to like this more, listening to most of They Want My Soul just feels like a waste of time.

~They Want My Soul is released August 4th 2014 via Loma Vista.~