Two years ago, it probably wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Spoon had decided to call it quits for good. Lead singer Britt Daniel was busy fronting Divine Fits, whose artsy, new wave brand of indie rock drew surprising critical acclaim, especially for a “supergroup,” and whose members remained adamant that the band was not just a one-off. Bass player Rob Pope had just re-joined the influential emo band the Get Up Kids, a group he had been a founder of in the mid-90s with his brother and childhood friends, and one that he remained a member of for over a decade before moving to Texas to join Spoon in 2007. Drummer Jim Eno, who has owned and operated his own recording studio in Austin since 1998, had taken to his passion for producing and engineering fulltime, working with everyone from John Vanderslice to Black Joe Lewis to Alejandro Escovedo. Even multi-instrumentalist Eric Harvey, who’d been very quiet throughout most of his time in Spoon, had launched a solo folk-pop career and put out his first album.
Around the same time, there was a distinct feeling that Spoon’s sound and success had plateaued with 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. According to Daniel himself, tensions and frustrations were at an all-time high within the band before their 2010 hiatus, and they surprised many in the industry when they decided to unexpectedly end their nine-year, five-album relationship with Merge Records around that same time. Well, as the old expression goes, time (and a few new synthesizers) heals all. In the fall of 2013, the members of Spoon kissed and made up, added Divine Fits synth guru Alex Fischel to the quartet and holed themselves up with producer Dave Fridmann (MGMT, Flaming Lips, Neon Indian) in a remote studio on the outskirts of Buffalo, New York in a snowy attempt to resurrect and revitalize the band’s once infinitely promising career.
The result, They Want My Soul, is almost a 50-50 split of classic Spoon songs that could’ve popped up on one of their earlier albums and songs that incorporate new synths and heavily processed electronic beats. The former is either the Spoon that you’ve known and loved for over a decade or the Spoon that has been annoyingly reluctant to push the envelope for over a decade, depending on your pre-existing views of them. Things like the throwback rock guitar on the album’s opener, Rent I Pay, the palatable melody and comfortable riffs that make up the indie-pop meets alt-rock Do You, the boogying nature and signature Britt Daniel vocal melody behind They Want My Soul and the bouncy, poppy and guitar-driven Let Me Be Mine make the album feel, at times, like it could’ve been a product of the group’s mid-aughties heyday, which is definitely not a bad thing whatsoever. But, where the group shows real growth, maybe their first real growth since 2005’s Gimmie Fiction, is on those tracks where they decide to roll the dice a little bit.
On Inside Out, the album’s second track, there is a two-minute long piano and synth jam that lets the listener know early on in the album that Spoon did not just take four years off to pick up right where they left off. The band’s attempts to update, enrich and advance their sound on They Want My Soul feature one particularly large break-through and one pretty blatant miss, those tracks being Outlier and Knock, Knock, Knock respectively. Outlier is an upbeat head-bobber featuring driving bass and drums and a well incorporated synth that serves a melodic function that Spoon probably would have utilized with an electric guitar on any of their previous seven LPs. The track brings Spoon into the 2010s, but does it with respect to what they’ve done in the past. Their sound isn’t broken, so there’s no need to re-invent the wheel here, just to tweak it in a few places where it’s gotten a little rusty. On Outlier, the band begins to touch a brand of re-vamped, progressive thinking alternative rock that quite a few like-minded groups would do well to take a note from.
Conversely Knock, Knock, Knock features a drum pad that is way too effected, some weird exotic acoustic guitar strumming, Daniels singing in a style that is ill-fit for his voice, some weird unnecessary whistling, an overly fuzzy guitar that kind of sounds like an amp just popped, a very in-your-face, loud and abrupt organ synth that serves very limited purpose in the tune and at a few points just straight up noise. It’s not 100% clear who Spoon are trying to be on the track, but they are certainly trying hard to not be themselves, dipping their feet a little too far into the re-invention pool that time.
There is also a third Spoon that appears on the record, a darker, more mature one then in the past. When Daniel sings, “I came home last night/I had no good news/And you’ve been sleeping through the brightest flash of apocalyptic ruin/And if you leave, I’ll never sing another tune,” he enters into a gloomy realm that adds an entirely new dimension to Spoon’s recordings. Furthermore, on the band’s cover of Ann-Margaret’s I Just Don’t Understand, a version that draws heavily from a live cover that the Beatles played often throughout the mid-1960s, Daniel probably gives his strongest vocal performance while the band’s blues and jazz influences hit their peak in one of the album’s more serious tracks. Overall, it’s a fuller sounding version of the Fab Four’s take on the tune that serves a clear purpose in fostering depth within the album.
While Spoon is certainly still figuring out exactly what it is they want to do differently with their sound post-hiatus, a solid road map of new found diversity and eclecticism is laid out throughout a large chunk of They Want My Soul, and despite the inevitable growing pains, Spoon really does seem poised to continue rising from the ashes of their near disappearance.