By Nick Burns
Spoon’s latest album opens with a quivering, uneasy synth on the title track, “Hot Thoughts.” It sounds a little like an extrapolation of the dreamiest take from their last LP, the song “Inside Out” off of 2014’s “They Want My Soul.” But within a few seconds, as singer Britt Daniel’s lyrics and the guitar kick in, hopes of this album providing room for Spoon to flesh out the otherworldly beauty of “Inside Out” die away as the track turns into a pitch-down-the-plate clearly meant for modern rock radio. “Hot thoughts meltin’ my mind / Could be your accent mixing with mine,” Daniel sings unconvincingly. Spoon’s sexiness has never been their selling point, which makes one wonder why this album seems to aim in that direction.
It’s not like Spoon to craft as terrible a bridge as the one on “Hot Thoughts” (which includes the regrettable lines “raise up my creatures / diamonds from space”). There’s so much in the song that seems nonsensical and baroque — in a word, unnecessary. There’s nothing unique about that tendency in indie rock, but we’ve always expected — and received — more out of Spoon, the band that gave us the pared-down masterpiece that was 2002’s “Kill the Moonlight.”
The third track, “Do I Have to Talk You Into It,” offers a ray of hope. The track is textbook Spoon: a simple, crisp drum part, those familiar repeated piano chords and the occasional intrusion of frenetic guitar. The half-warm, half-alienated tone the song takes is also classic — “Do I have to talk you into it?” Daniel wonders, mixing coyness and fear. “When I’ve known you such a long time / And we never had to act polite.” It reads like a cross between The National’s “I Should Live in Salt,” with its depressed, alienated refrain of “You should know me better than that,” and Spoon’s own laid-back breakup track, “Anything You Want” off of 2001’s “Girls Can Tell,” on which Daniel goodheartedly offers his ex a place to stay if she ever needs one, drawling, “If there’s anything you want, come on back ‘cause it’s all still here / I’ll be in the back room drinking my half of the beer.” The track even has a nice twist at the end: glassy, crystalline synths come in after the bridge as the song twinkles out.
The next track, “First Caress,” likewise impresses with its backpedaling wah-wah synths, but “Pink Up” shows how little has come of all of Spoon’s experimentation — it sounds almost like a B-side from U2’s self-indulgent “No Line on the Horizon” — and “Can I Sit Next to You” has Daniel trying to sound sexy again. I thought Spoon was too cool and too self-conscious for this kind of maneuver, which makes them sound like they should be playing after a Walk the Moon song on the radio. Despite an alienated synth part adding some depth to the track, there’s no salvaging the minimalist, gritty cool Spoon claimed for themselves on “Kill the Moonlight.”
What’s happened to Britt Daniel’s songwriting? The title of the song “I Ain’t the One” is enough to indict it, and on “Tear it Down,” the lines “Let them build a wall around us / I don’t care, I’ll tear it down” sounds, if timely considering the Trump administration, cheesy nonetheless, while the na-na-na bridge is almost cringe-worthily unoriginal. “Shotgun,” if a bad song, is at least familiar in a genre of Spoon songs that are brash and urgent but not melodic or otherwise redeeming, like “Rainy Taxi” off “They Want My Soul.” The album’s outro, “Us,” built off what sounds like the lonely saxophone of a subway busker, actually manages to create a convincing, if repetitive, soundscape out of horns — even if Radiohead has done it all before on “Kid A’”s “The National Anthem.”
The problems of this album all seem to stem from a change to the Spoon recipe made on their last album — ironically, it was originally a change for the better. Spoon had always been cool, but “Inside Out” from “They Want My Soul” proved they could be beautiful too.
But, having taken the electronic sound that made that song possible and having tried to craft an album out of it, the result is neither beautiful nor cool. Instead of making something as ethereal as “Inside Out,” they’ve made an album of songs that, with few exceptions, either seem aimless or are altogether too much of this world — specifically, the rock top 40s. Here’s hoping that Spoon’s next effort either resorts to the simple, crunchy guitars of the tried-and-true, or else do better justice to the promise of “Inside Out,” their most beautiful song to date.
It always makes me sad to write a bad review for a good band, but I suppose it was only a matter of time before Spoon — a group that has not done a bad album this millennium, and not for lack of trying — finally showed cracks in their armor.
Contact Nick Burns at njburns ‘at’ stanford.edu.