Every prominent musician has some kind of a narrative attached to them, a story that carries their larger-than-life personality. It is this narrative that contextualizes their work, making every album they release, regardless of quality, feel like an event. The Beatles had this narrative. Nirvana had this narrative. Beyoncé currently lives and breathes this narrative. And Spoon? Well, their narrative is that there really isn’t a narrative at all. For the span of Spoon’s 20+ year career, there was no rags-to-riches story, no dramatic breakup, no eccentric band members, no grand middle finger to the music industry, just a string of ridiculously good pop-rock records. Perhaps that is why, despite being the darlings of music critics, Spoon has failed to capture mainstream attention like their other indie contemporaries.
In spite of this, Spoon is still one of the best rock bands of this generation for the sheer consistency in quality of their studio albums. Every Spoon album is an infectious collection of airtight, slick, catchy hook-heavy pop-rock tunes that are equally thoughtful and dance-able. Every element in their songs is fine tuned for perfection, almost uncannily so, and is driven forward by lead singer Britt Daniel’s instantly recognizable nasally vocals. On their ninth record, Hot Thoughts, Spoon makes the biggest leap in their career, moving beyond the traditional indie rock formula and fully embracing the synth-driven funk artifice that had only been hinted at on their previous record, 2014’s phenomenal They Want My Soul.
Legendary producer Dave Fridmann helms the album’s production and exerts a large amount of his influence on Spoon’s new sonic direction. Fridmann is famous for turning the sounds of established bands inside-out so that subtle edges within their music become full blown excesses. He’s the man responsible for transforming The Flaming Lips into a psychedelic symphony orchestra and for bastardizing Sleater-Kinney’s abrasive punk rock into something even more violent and visceral. These excesses are heavily present on Hot Thoughts, which takes Spoon’s usual economic approach to song composition and fills its airspace with thick sonic pollution.
The album’s two sides both conclude with the band’s strangest songs to date, “Pink Up” and “Us.” Spoon practically abandons the rock band guise as both tracks unfold more like mosaics of sound rather than actual songs. “Pink Up” feels like a psychedelic dance party, where the ringing percussion, subtle guitar work, dense layers of humming synths and mesmerizing vocals all slowly melt into goop as a persistent kick drum carries them to a piano coda. It’s gorgeously meditative and colorful, reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s experiments with atmosphere. “Us” is an experimental jazz instrumental devoid of any conventional song structure. Across the track’s five minutes, a lone saxophone weeps in what feels like a barren and spacious room. Occasionally, the echoes of drums and synths leap out of the dark. Despite the song’s experimental audacity, it ultimately still feels tedious and misplaced.
Even with this brand new direction, Spoon still plays to their strengths on most of the album’s tracks. The album’s two singles, the title track and “Can I Sit Next to You,” are infectiously groovy tracks of funk rock sleekness, taking notes directly from the band’s own R&B-inspired hit single “I Turn My Camera On.” Daniel’s hiccup-style vocals are drenched in rock star swagger as the band’s rhythm section, consisting of drummer Jim Eno and bassist Rob Pope, punctuate his words with each pulsing beat. The guitar interplay is simultaneously tight and effortless as Daniel and multi-instrumentalist Alex Fischel crunch riffs through their strings and slide guitar lines through their fretboards. The descending riffs, Eastern-inspired string arrangements and spacey production of these tracks give off a Berlin-era David Bowie vibe, where darkness and disco unite.
“WhisperI’lllistentohearit,” the best song on the record, is a perfect compromise between Fridmann’s obsession with synthetic makeup and Spoon’s taste for pop-rock juiciness. The song opens with a bubbling sea of synths that gradually lead into Daniel’s vocals. “I know you must hold secrets / Such a long way from home” Daniel whispers cryptically. As guitar lines build the song’s tension, a defined drumbeat kicks in and blows the doors down. Fridmann’s production highlights Eno’s drum kit, making his snare sound like the blast of a shotgun. Coated on top is a layer of distorted ambience resembling the sound of a large sandstorm. As the song reaches its climax, it crescendos into a euphoric guitar solo, played in Spoon’s signature crispy guitar tone, while Daniels gives his best impression of the iconic Arcade Fire wail. It is simply glorious.
To no one’s surprise, Spoon have yet again created what is perhaps going to go down as one of the year’s strongest pop-rock records. While there isn’t anything as nearly hook-laden as “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” or “Do You,” the band still does a phenomenal job of fully implementing kaleidoscopic synths and dense soundscapes into their catchy song formula. However, when the band does decide to veer off into new territory, it isn’t always so successful. If anything, this is less a sign of the band’s declining quality and more a promise for experimental and successful albums to come in the future. Like The Beatles and Radiohead before them, Spoon has managed to make eight great albums consecutively. However, what they lacked was the boldness and experimentation. Now with Hot Thoughts under their belt, I believe Spoon is heading into the right direction for rock music greatness. A-