I've listened through Spoon's They Want My Soul at least 12 times since the Austin quintet's eighth studio LP was made available for streaming last Monday. Part of that is a requirement for writing a review. I have to know what I'm talking about and the easiest way to gain that knowledge is to absorb as much of the music as possible. Also I've hit a dozen because Spoon's studio trickery demands repeat listening. It's true that any good to great record will have you finding new wrinkles with each listen, but with Spoon it's an ironclad law. No way could you hear every double tracked vocal or bass hiccup in one pass. Finally I'm into double digits with They Want My Soul because it's a terrific record. In the course of a scant 37 minutes it creates a world that I could live in forever and never grow bored of.
It's been four years since the indie stalwarts released the slowly revealing Transference, and from the sounds of They Want My Soul Spoon spent all of the 2 million plus minutes stripping the record down to its essentials. Never mind that lead singer Britt Daniel started "super group" the Divine Fits or the band was called up to the big leagues for a second time, when you play They Want My Soul you picture the band huddling around a soundboard and fiddling with knobs for hours on end. "We lived in the studio, I mean we stayed in the studio," Daniel told NPR's Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton about their time working with Flaming Lips cohort Dave Fridmann. Splitting duties with U2/Elton John/Beck/Shins engineer/producer Joe Chiccarelli, Fridmann and the industry vet took Bruce Springsteen's "four corners approach" and created rock that's as thrilling with headphones pressed to your ears as it is blasting out of speakers.
Opener "Rent I Pay" belongs to the latter variety. Gut shots from drummer Jim Eno are the first thing we hear on the record, followed closely by a jangled guitar. Britt Daniel is remarkably measured thanks to piping organ that eases the tension and allows him to casually shrug his shoulders as he takes his lumps. "That's the rent I pay," he constantly growls. There isn't any disappointment or fatigue hiding in his voice; he knows the score before he begins playing. That eyes wide open acceptance and rock swagger is replicated in title track "They Want My Soul," as Daniel is wholly aware of his enemies. The song deals in the same subject matter as Springsteen's "It's So Hard to Be a Saint in the City" where everyone's preying on the idealistic individual. Daniel is more forgiving than the Boss though, rattling off the "card sharks" and "socialites" who want his soul without disdain. When Daniel gets self-referential and comes across the foul "Jonathon Fisk," he avoids hostility. In 2002 when Fisk first appeared on Kill the Moonlight, Daniel felt oppressed by the former bully. Now there's a hint of sympathy when he yelps "Jonathon Fisk still wants my soul," atop Eno's steady beat and Eric Harvey's lithe tambourine shakes. So what if those around him haven't grown up? The 43-year-old Daniel has and he wants the past left alone.
There's a reason though that acceptance is the final stage in the five stages of grief; it's the hardest. For much of They Want My Soul Britt Daniel wanders around lost in the woods of the first four. "Inside Out" is one of the dreamiest numbers Spoon has ever attempted. Synthesizer knobs are slowly faded up and down throughout the song and what sound like plucked harp notes glide over metronomic drum machine hits, but Daniel is uneasy. You can hear jitters as he croons "I don't make time for holy rollers, it's only you I need, they do not make me complete." With such a fragile voice you know no one can make him whole.
Rightfully this waltzing between denial and depression crests with "side one" closer "Knock Knock Knock." Massive "dulled" drum strikes jockey for position against a steely-eyed acoustic guitar. You can picture Daniel in the middle of a torn up auditorium stage with the lights off, gazing at the floor and lamenting "all lines are read, the film is done." Sea shanty whistling and possible dabs of Fender Rhodes tease Daniel with a ray of light before string scraping out of Public Image Ltd.'s "Albatross" swallows him up. "Every time I hear knock knock knock, I know that it's you," he horrifyingly declares. There's no reason to get up and answer the door because the same disappointment is lurking behind it.
Side two opener "Outlier" resigns further into defeat; effectively bucking the trend of the four corners approach where the side openers bolt out of the gate. Retrograde keyboards add dark ambiance to the track and Jim Eno's lack of drum fills only heightens the tension. "You were smart, you played no part. You just thought, what you thought. And I remember when, you walked out of Garden State (cause) you had taste you had taste, you had no time to waste. Oh what happened to you kid?" Daniel soberly wonders aloud. The Garden State line has garnered a bit of "controversy," but worrying about it misses the forest for the trees. Not unlike Arcade Fire's frantic "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)," "Outlier" captures someone pinning their hopes for success on an idol. While the Funeral character prayed his older brother Alexander could make it on his own, Daniel's tightly crossing his fingers for a friend to clear a path. I know I've done the same. In high school I watched older friends of mine head off to college and I expected them to magically figure everything out. When they didn't, when their stories sounded just as confused as mine, I started to panic.
Disillusionment comes in many forms and They Want My Soul's final two tracks examine how romantic relationships can fan the flames. For a split second the acoustic tinkering in "Let Me Be Mine" recalls "Wish You Were Here," if the Pink Floyd staple was more spirituous. Rob Pope's bass is at its most powerful here, giving the song an arena rock strut while Britt Daniel is sitting in a dingy room half-heartedly promising "auction off what you love, it'll come back some time." As the words leave his lips you know it’s not true. There's no guarantee you'll ever get back what you set free. Daniel knows it’s a lie when he rattles, "go ahead and take another chunk of me with you when you go." The line is the "it’s better to burn out than fade away," for romantic relationships circa 2014. As connected as we are, clean breaks can’t exist anymore. Love is shipped off by piecemeal. First to go will be the late night texts or Snapchats. And then the wall posts or DM's on Twitter. You may never actually work up the nerve to hit block or unfriend, so they'll be like the star you notice in the night sky. They exist, but they're so far off you can never get to them. You'll still think about them, an echoed Daniel is "still thinking about it," like something out of Kanye West's "Blame Game." However everything will be in the past. New memories won't be made.
Stunning closer "New York Kiss" is the final memory, its Jim Carrey walking around the decayed beach house with Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Gently clanking xylophone and uncharacteristic synth from the earthy band paint a striking scene of downtown New York where no one is around. "It's just another place to place your memory on," as Daniel puts it in the chorus. It's no longer a real location, but a dramatic setting for heartbreak. Faded neon signs point towards the "golden years" when the shouts were off in the distance. There's a fleeting moment of triumph when the music calms and Daniel whines "there ain't a thing I miss," though the glory is dashed when he finishes "quite like your New York kiss." We all have that one memory that clings to us like a leech that we'll never be able to shake. Daniel's is an impassioned kiss in the middle of the night.
More than its relational relevancy, the greatest success of They Want My Soul is that even relative miscues are compelling. Eerie keyboard work in "Rainy Taxi" makes Britt Daniel's "I came home last night, I had no good news," alluring despite his signature rasp being pushed to the background. "I Just Don't Understand" is an unnecessary cover of the Ann Margaret tune, though the barrelhouse piano will have you swaying along. A great way to tell if a hip hop producer is worth anything is to take away the rapping and see if the music holds up by itself. If you could listen to a beat tape of their work and find it equally rewarding, they're a talented producer. So it is with Spoon. I love Daniel's voice and his enigmatic lines, but if Spoon was an instrumental unit I'd still be wearing this album thin.
I'm frankly amazed my file of "Do You" hasn't been corrupted with the number of plays it has racked up. The album's second single is already a worthy advisory for "The Underdog" as Spoon's finest pop moment. "Do You"'s acoustic shuffle is kin to the Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga opus but everything else is far more atmospheric. Falsetto "doo doo doos" float in the background. Crisp cymbal washes in the chorus don't fully recede, they disappear. Distended yowls from Britt Daniel traipse around without really being heard. When he sings "it's late in October, tar's still melting in the street," it may as well be "guitars still melting in the street" the way his briefing soloing hits the ear before the verse begins. "That's the way love comes," Daniel informs us. When wispy keys from new member Alex Fischel and Eric Harvey carry the song off into an uncertain night, we see what Daniel means. Love never arrives the way we expect it to. It pops up at odd times and at odd places. It's wonderfully comforting and strange all at once. Not unlike Spoon.
They Want My Soul drops Tuesday through Republic/Loma Vista.