Well, that was fun. Four and a half years later, Spoon have returned with their eighth studio album, They Want My Soul, a friendly wake-up call from the druggy claustrophobia of 2010’s Transference. The Austin rockers once again sound fresh, jubilant, and ready to have fun with their music — a first since their Got Nuffin EP back in 2009. But they’ve certainly done some stretching: Britt Daniel polished off brilliant new wave with Divine Fits (and brought back a friend in keyboardist Alex Fischel); Jim Eno cut his teeth over at Austin’s Public Hi-Fi studios, crafting tight work for Telekinesis, Heartless Bastards, and !!!; and Eric Harvey shook out any withstanding nerves with his solo effort, Lake Disappointment. “We just needed a break,” Daniel told NPR earlier this summer. “And when we got back together, I felt that that break was a good thing. And we were all excited about playing again.” He’s not wrong.
They Want My Soul feels like a new beginning for Spoon, even beyond their new Loma Vista label. It’s not as fun as 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga or 2005’s Gimme Fiction, but it’s just as punchy, while also sticking with the ambition that made Transference arguably so intriguing despite its muddled demeanor. Producers Joe Chiccarelli (The Strokes, My Morning Jacket) and Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) provide a key outsider perspective, while Fischel grasps at sounds that might have otherwise fazed the group. The Roxy Music sauna of “Inside Out”, for example, is something I’m not sure they could have accomplished previously, and the same goes for the sleek “China Girl” mystery of the closing gem, “New York Kiss”. Some might dub the latter a lost Divine Fits track on first listen (guilty), but really, Eno’s percussion keeps this strictly A Thing Called Spoon, instead. Point is, there’s a broader range of music here than perhaps any prior album of theirs, which makes for an adventurous listen … but not exactly a cohesive one.
But cohesion was never in the cards for a band nearly half a decade removed from themselves. Remember The Strokes? That other post-2000 band that returned in 2011 from an extended hiatus? They resurfaced five years after 2006’s First Impressions of Earth with their disjointed Angles (partly produced by Chiccarelli, coincidentally), receiving a polarizing share of criticism and confusion as to Where They Stood. But consider that the worst case scenario and one that doesn’t apply to Spoon this year. Sure, they toss and turn aplenty on Soul, but the guys never lose face. Daniel’s Britpop rasp bleeds through most of these tracks, while Eno’s been doing this far too long to let their identity fall wayside. In a way, Soul is akin to A Ghost Is Born, Wilco’s Jay Bennett-less follow-up to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Not that Spoon lost any member of their band, but the addition of Fischel is a little like Wilco’s inclusion of Jim O’Rourke, an influence to rethink old tricks.
And that they do. Take “Outlier”, the other new wave exercise that kicks off the album’s second half. Most would credit Fischel, but the Disintegration-styled track actually belongs to Harvey and Eno, who pieced the instrumentation together before sending it out to Daniel. It’s a total left turn for the two songwriters and engineers, but it’s a knowledgeable one — they know what works for their singer, even in his absence. As such, Daniel glides over the sprawling synths with comfortable ease, as if he’s astronaut David Bowman, the soon-to-be Star Child at the climax of 2001: a space odyssey. (Too esoteric of a reference here? C’mon, cinephiles!) Other areas of “Great Job!” teamwork include the post-modern acoustic injections throughout “Knock Knock Knock”, the aquatic atmosphere within “Do You”, and the kinetic energy driving the aforementioned “New York Kiss”. Son of a bitch is that last song addicting.
Those inclusions speak to the excitement Daniel described above to NPR. But they also fuel a few of the more Spoon-friendly tracks that bullet the album. Opener “Rent I Pay” stomps around with the sexy swagger we’ve come to expect from the Austinites, working off fat, chugging guitars, Eno’s thundering percussion, and Daniel’s razor-sharp vocals. It’s a ballsy way to say hello again and familiar enough to segue straight into the quirky “Inside Out”. Fans should also take solace in the familiar melodies of “They Want My Soul”, the cheeky Billy Joel punch to “Let Me Be Mine”, and the extended soulful jog that keeps “Rainy Taxi” from hydroplaning. The only real outlier, to borrow a title here, is their fuzzed-out cover of Ann-Margaret’s “I Just Don’t Understand”. Originally set for a Rookie exclusive, the cover saunters like a boozy Oasis blues jam, but it’s layered enough — thanks again, Chiccarelli — to squeeze into Soul unannounced.
As for Soul‘s underlying message, that’s definitely up for interpretation. Although one key insight is the return of Jonathon Fisk, who haunts the album’s title track. Fans have already taken notice, and many reached out to Daniel during our recent Q&A, wondering why the middle school bully from 2002’s Kill the Moonlight has a place on Soul. Daniel insisted he was “trying to think of soul suckers in general: religious pretenders, upsellers, educated folk singers.” Those types are also a part of the unease that filters throughout “Inside Out”, in which Daniel spits: “I don’t got time for holy rollers/ Though they may wash my feet/ And I won’t be their soldier.” For clarification on the use of “holy rollers,” Daniel later posted the first part of this Wikipedia page. It should be noted that the same term is used in The Beatles’ “Come Together” — a song that was written by John Lennon, a voice many fans and critics have previously likened to Daniel. Weird, right?
Maybe not. In hindsight, Daniel’s hardly been the cryptic sort — even if this album was preceded by that ominous “R.I.P.” video — so it’s likely he’s just preaching what we already learned from J.D. Salinger: “If you sat around there long enough and heard all the phonies applauding and all, you got to hate everybody in the world, I swear you did.” Granted, he doesn’t get that cynical, but at the wizened age of 43, it’s probably a thought he’s had over the years. With that in mind, it’s clear he’s around the sort of company he prefers on They Want My Soul. They’re all familiar faces willing to explore the extraordinary together. Let’s not forget that Spoon has been doing this for over 20 years, too, which makes an enjoyable comeback record such as this even more of a palpable victory. “We got nothing else to give,” Daniel sings on “Inside Out”. Well, now who’s being the holy roller, pal?
Essential Tracks: “New York Kiss”, “Rainy Taxi”, and “They Want My Soul”