Spoon – They Want My Soul

Spoon’s “deceptively strong and experimental” new album took a few spins to convince DOUG WALLEN of its charms.

Is They Want My Soul Spoon’s most Spoon-y album to date? After four years between records, it certainly rolls all of the band’s trademarks – splintered percussion, rakish spillages of piano, so much warm distortion and of course Britt Daniel’s frayed, nasal singing – into one tight, familiar package. So familiar, in fact, that this initially plays like a conscious circling back to the band’s jagged fourth LP, 2002’s Kill the Moonlight. There’s even a quick lyrical nod to Moonlight’s bully-inspired tune ‘Jonathan Fisk’ on this album’s title track.

But the past is just the beginning for They Want My Soul. Spoon have spent most of their career cutting back more and more, following the well-earned victories of the mainstream-courting Gimme Fiction (2005) and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007) with the choppy, skin-and-bones Transference in 2010. But while there’s a lot of charm to hearing a song that’s like eavesdropping on a demo, eventually you can’t cut back any more without losing the song altogether.

And so now we hear Spoon quietly adding new things to their disciplined palette, whether it’s the canned beats and loops of the ‘Inside Out’, the fleeting synth lines on several songs and what’s very nearly a proper dance track in the aptly titled ‘Outlier’. Sure, many other elements will trigger flashbacks to earlier Spoon records – the rickety strum-and-hum of ‘Do You’, the cacophonous piano in ‘Rainy Taxi’, the prickly snatches of noise on ‘Knock Knock Knock’ – but it does feel like Spoon is stretching out. Countering Daniel’s signature, room-filling vocal anxiety with prettier melodic motifs like those wan synths gives these songs an extra layer of friction. They’re not just sweet, or just sour, but both at once.

“In the end it proves deceptively strong and experimental”

For all its cracked untidiness, there’s something a lot like comfort food to the opening ‘Rent I Pay’ – dig those blown-out drums – and the gnashing yet almost bubbly title track. Neither is earth-shattering, but they’re rock-solid and totally welcoming for fans. Ditto the hooky cool of ‘Do You’, the gruff soul of ‘I Just Don’t Understand’ (a cover of a song popularised by Ann-Margret) and the Stones-y riff and snide barbs (“You’re gonna take another chunk of me with you when you go”) of ‘Let Me Be Mine’. By the time we get to the closing ‘New York Kiss’, Daniel sounds so natural vocally and lyrically, it’s as if he’s riffing over snapped fingers.

That feeling of effortless cool is a touchstone of Spoon, no matter how harried Daniel might get on a given song. And he sounds cooler than ever here, especially when harmonising with himself in call-and-response falsetto on ‘Inside Out’. After getting back in touch with his inner rock ‘n’ roll badass through his Divine Fits team-up with Dan Boecker (Handsome Furs, Wolf Parade) in 2012, he seems more open to stylistic departures, like that left-field dance detour ‘Outlier’ (though largely instrumental) and the trip-hop-ish leanings of ‘Inside Out’.

As a long-time Spoon fan, They Want My Soul didn’t bowl me over right away. In fact, it didn’t truly click for me until around the fourth listen. But if it can seem like nothing new from the Austin band at first, in the end it proves deceptively strong and experimental alike – and Daniel’s lyrics increasingly impactful.

Most interesting, though, is just how casually it all comes off. Despite the studied hand of drummer/producer Jim Eno and working partly with unmistakeable producer Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Tame Impala), there’s still the air of rough-hewn demos here. For a band so established to come out with a record that sounds so unpolished – however much labour and thought actually went into it – is quite liberating. It’s as if to say, “Don’t overthink it – just feel it.” And really, that same simple mantra provides the key to appreciating this album.