They Want My Soul
(Loma Vista; 2014)
By Corey Beasley | 5 September 2014
Writing about Spoon can be tough: at this point in the band’s career, their music is so confidently tight as to seem almost impermeable. How can a critic slip any words between cracks that don’t exist? That unassailable quality may be what provoked so many critics to pin Spoon’s last record, 2010’s Transference, as a head-scratcher, a disappointment, a step too far in the group’s penchant for deconstructing rock and pop tropes (“Finally, we can do our jobs!”). Four years later, it’s easy to see how well Transference has aged, easily holding its place in Spoon’s catalog, not to mention how it contains some of the band’s best songs to date—including what may be their finest, full stop, the devastatingly beautiful “Out Go the Lights.” Is it the best Spoon record? No, but it’s a Spoon record. That’s saying enough.
Still, the tepid response to Transference has colored the reception to They Want My Soul, Spoon’s first album in four long years. Opener “Rent I Pay” knocks away any lingering notions of Transference’s sly trickery in a single staccato power chord. Britt Daniel’s voice, only sharpened with grit now that he’s past forty, strains in just the right way as he belts the chorus, his band roaring behind him like a mythical beast in Wayfarers and Chelsea boots. Daniel and Eric Harvey’s guitars crunch; Jim Eno’s drums thunder; Rob Pope’s bass grooves; new keyboardist Alex Fischel does something. “Rent I Pay” asks, “Thought we forgot how to do this shit?” and answers with a sneer and tinnitus. The tone is set: They Want My Soul gives pleasures immediate and unlocked, a freshly bitten peach dribbling sweet nectar down your chin.
And lo, a torrent of “return to form” narratives were loosed upon the internet by music critics far and wide, and the people rejoiced. The rejoicing is the important thing, and the proper reaction, so far as one enjoys things like “fun” and “joy,” but that first part—it niggles. “Rent I Pay,” if you’re fortunate enough to be coming to Spoon for the first time when hearing it, slays. If you’re coming to it years down the line, it…still slays. But you might also recognize it for what it is: Spoon pastiche. Fully functional, dopamine-soaked Spoon pastiche, but pastiche nonetheless. All the pieces are in order, just where you would expect them, and there lies the problem. Put another way, a paint-by-numbers Water Lilies looks great on the wall at first, but it lacks enough depth to keep you coming back. “Rent I Pay” serves a purpose in announcing They Want My Soul and its intent, but start the album with track two and it’s almost a different experience altogether.
That song, “Inside Out,” pulls a hat trick with the subtlety and grace only a band with Spoon’s professionalism could hope to do. It maintains the spirit of Transference’s restless experimentalism but fuses it to They Want My Soul’s out-and-out pop sensibility, resulting in a song at once one of Spoon’s most adventurous and most purely, viscerally gratifying. Built on a foundation laid by a drum machine and looping samples, “Inside Out” is the band’s first real foray into the textures offered by those tools, and Daniel marries their tonal richness to a quietly bravura vocal performance, swapping a vulnerable yelp back and forth with falsetto restraint, to create a quiet stunner. Pope’s bass guides the song, just funky enough without ever toeing into showiness, while an array of synth tones—a harp; echo-laden keys—enriches the electro palate to create a fully stacked buffet, as airy and light as it is deeply, completely filling. It’s the standout of the album, and one of the standouts of Spoon’s career.
“Inside Out” isn’t exactly a sign of what’s to come on They Want My Soul, though its meticulous, intricate spirit extends to the album’s best material. Pope, for perhaps the first time, becomes the band’s not-named-Daniel VIP. His driving, insistent rhythm propels “Rainy Taxi” to its awesome crescendo, allowing the rest of the band to capitalize on breaking his well-laid tension; his licks on “Outlier” take the track from spacey to properly stoned, an engrossing atmospheric number that has one of Daniel’s best lines (“I remember when you walked out of Garden State / ‘Cause you had taste, you had taste, / You had no time to waste”); the bass tone on “They Want My Soul,” around 1:23, might be the sound’s platonic ideal. That Pope gets placed front-and-center on so many of Soul’s tracks speaks to how solidly built these songs are—his foundation lets Daniel and company flesh out their material with a smorgasbord of hooks and captivating flashes of clever production. “They Want My Soul” features a killer call-and-response guitar solo that could’ve been played on a single axe but that threatens to send listeners into convulsive fits of rock’n’roll bliss as Daniel and Harvey play it here. It’s almost as thrilling as hearing Daniel scream, “JOOOONATHON FISK STILL WANTS MY SOUL!” right before the solo kicks in. My hands are creeping into devil horns even as I type this.
For those “return to form” insisters, yeah, a few tracks do play like the best bits of Gimme Fiction (2005) and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)—“Do You,” a bubblegum blitz destined for endless repetitions until the summer burns itself out, or “Let Me Be Mine,” an amped break-up anthem disguising some some serious lyrical bite (“You’re gonna take another chunk of me with you / When you go / Go ahead and take another chunk of me / Yeah, just go!”). Put your iPod on Spoon shuffle, and these tracks would melt into the band’s mid-2000s period in the best way. But They Want My Soul’s closer’s might outdo even those airtight throwbacks. The synth-pop jam you never knew you needed from Spoon, “New York Kiss” has hooks so sharp they scramble your brain until you can’t do much else but listen to the track again and again, dumbfounded and lobotomized. Keyboardist Fischel makes himself most obviously known here, though the song bears the mark of a different Daniel collaborator more definitively. Those shimmering, downcast synth lines? The way they set the tone before a perfectly brittle guitar comes to shatter your heart right alongside a world-worn, gravel-flecked vocal? Yeah, this is basically a Dan Boeckner song, and that’s a compliment of the highest order—Boeckner’s the (comparably) unsung Guitar Hero of his generation, and if Daniel’s time co-chairing Divine Fits with him pays dividends like “New York Kiss” from now on, it’s just another notch in Boeckner’s impossibly skinny belt. Either way, Daniel’s finally wearing the rock star crown he’s deserved for a decade-and-change, and we’re the ones who get to revel in his glory. Long live the king.