Gimme Fiction

(Merge; 2005)

By Amir Nezar | 31 December 2007

I considered doing a geometric, Spinozistic proof that would show, without question or even possibility of error, why Gimme Fiction dwarfs 99% of the albums that have been or will be released this year. A review positioned like a cannon against all casual detractors, a review so irrefutable that if someone said, “Oh, I don’t know, Gimme Fiction just doesn’t really seem that great,” an informed CMG reader would say, “What the fuck are you talking about? Amir Nezar fucking proved it geometrically, you ass-hat. He also happened to name-drop Spinoza in his review, and Spinoza’s a philosopher, so you know this guy knows his shit.”

Oh, what a pleasing fancy. What a wishful fiction. Alas! somehow, others will say “But I just don’t feel that Gimme Fiction is great. After all, there isn’t any objective way of judging this sort of thing —- music is a purely subjective experience, and we all experience it differently.” And I will bang my head against the floor and perhaps write a virulent essay on how music criticism has become a haven of misguided, pure relativism. As if Beethoven is a great composer because enough people got together and said, “We feel that Beethoven is a great composer.” No, no, no; the greatness is written into the music itself. Let’s find out how greatness is written into Gimme Fiction, shall we?

First, let’s talk theme, that little detail that most albums are too unfocused to deal with. As its title suggests, Gimme Fiction is concerned with fiction, our depthless desire for it —- for lives that we imagine, for roles we don’t play, for what isn’t, because what is can be a crippling disappointment. Lead man and songwriting essentialist —- or is he? —- Britt Daniel makes the recurrent theme clear on a number of occasions. On “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” he implores, “All I need is a crew…One that can stay on cue / And sneeze and sniff.” Between “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine,” he wants a role, “Every morning I’ve got a new chance / I want to learn the part of Eddie in The Stranger Dance.” In “The Delicate Place,” he deals with the fictions we see in one another, bargaining, “I’ll own up to you / If you own up to me.” He breaks fiction down with “My Mathematical Mind,” singing “I’m looking through you / You know who you are”; and he sees it fall apart on “I Summon You,” bemoaning, “How’d we get here / It’s too late to break it off.”

Second, let’s talk to about instrumental enhancement of theme. Gimme Fiction is (seemingly) messier than usual Spoon fare; its guitar bursts are anxious, sloppy beasts, its time signatures slip (but only apparently), voices echo and bleed, and it all make perfect sense in context. Interpret it whichever way you want: we want the gloss of some fictive ideal because the real state of affairs is tattered, or the fictions we seek are themselves frayed. But if you doubt that this messiness is somehow intentional, or significant, stop and think of the likelihood of a band taking longer than it’s ever taken to produce an album, only to be careless. Especially Spoon, of all bands.

That’s all impressive so far, but thirdly, let’s consider the crux of the musical argument: composition. Gimme Fiction trades exclusively in wonderfully complete songs as variegated in style and content as the thorny fictions that they grasp with bleeding fingers. The group masters Beatles pop on “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” piano and bass trading parts and then joining in terrific melodic leads. The men do bluesy-rock on “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine,” its bass hook a stroke of genius. “I Turn My Camera On” is all hip-shaking swagger and Prince-funk minimalism.

Even on the most apparently insubstantial of tunes, “Was It You?” Daniels’s lyrical content —- a simple story of a park escape that turns into a culprit-spotting —- is imbued with a deep sense of mystery and mistrust by the fleeting synths and keyboard touches that so aptly intimate the secrecy, the implied extra significance of the event. On these and all the album’s tracks, so many small details add extra textural dimensions to the songs’ sound and meaning, like so many small devils complicating the scene. While handclaps punctuate the spaces between dynamic swooning samples in “They Never Got You,” guitar wavers under the foregrounded riffs of “The Delicate Place” communicate the hesitation and distrust that eat up a lover’s honesty. Plus, everywhere you look, you find a hook: vocal hooks on “I Turn My Camera On,” the best bass hook of the year on “The Two Sides,” six-string hooks on the brilliant “Sister Jack,” piano hooks on “My Mathematical Mind,” the list goes on.

Fourth, let’s put together that hopelessly rare sense of analytic organization and thematic purpose with the album’s disarming emotional conviction. Listen to the way that dark, deep C major-key pounds right before Daniel confesses, “I’ve been watching my friends move away / I summon my love back to me.” Feel the way the ominous rise and fall of its minor key melody intimates the scars and bitterness behind the words, “You’ve been gone so long / Where you been for so long?” Mark the way the melancholic melody undermines the driving rhythm behind the hopeless story of flight in “I Summon You”: “And now this little girl / She says, ‘Will we make it at all?’” And once Daniel gets to those endlessly heartbreaking lines of regret, “And oh no / Where are you tonight? / How’d we get here? / It’s too late to break it off,” you’re choking to the sound of what some would mistakenly call minimalist rock. Far from it; Gimme Fiction is maximalist detail condensed into the most artfully concise gems in ages.

But what sticks out most about Spoon, five albums in, is how singular they sound, like a jut of brilliant rock standing unfazed by crashing tides of trends and hopeful hype. This is a band that doesn’t make unfulfilled promises; for Spoon, maintaining the status quo is a matter of maintaining excellence (since A Series of Sneaks, at least). If the case for that claim can’t be geometrically proved in a review, well fine; the music itself makes the best argument for its greatness, anyway.