(Merge; 2010)

By Alan Baban & Calum Marsh | 3 February 2010

Let’s clear up some shit, okay? Because what we have here is a great album, un- or under-appreciated. And we will brook no such dismissals, nor even indifference. Transference deserves your attention, your adoration, your total submission to its excellence.

But, yeah, we hear you. Girls Can Tell (2001), right? That record had Britt sounding similarly broken-up. Songs like “Lines in the Suit” were small fraught things his voice tore into—you could hear his voice rip it—and so the stakes seemed real, the danger and pain all too palpable. Transference is similarly painful, and in its own way refuses to play it safe. Here the band waylays a decade’s worth of profitable ideas in favor of…not doing that again.

Best to start with the facts. We can come right out and say it: Transference is not Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. This fact in and of itself will be reason enough for many people to hate this record. And even for those who like it, we imagine, it will be reason to like it less. What Transference does is it opens a space for this band to experiment within again. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at this record’s reception: we suppose it makes sense that Spoon’s most ostensibly “confused” record would be greeted with confusion (and, in some cases, anger). Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was fucking massive, achieving the kind of go-for-broke success that puts smiles on faces, that was of the most hot shit, that birthed the phrase “spoon-ocity,” that was, in retrospect, the stuff the band was building up to for the better part of the noughts. It was the culmination of a career, and it sounded like it.

It would have been very easy for Spoon to follow Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga with a simple sequel. But their modernist forward march, that model of efficient progress toward ineffable concision, had already reached its end. Chet’s right in championing “The Ghost Of You Lingers” because in many ways that is Spoon’s most important song, the “astounding aesthetic leap forward” that seems to be their last possible astounding aesthetic leap forward—because, really, if you’re Spoon and you just wrote “The Ghost Of You Lingers,” how do you conceive of a further leap forward? Of more spoon-ocity? Cop Viviane Houle and call it a day? I suspect that for Chet, “forward” for indie rock is to sound unlike indie rock, which for an indie rock band feels like cheating—“Ghost” was Britt Daniel doing Steve Reich, but is that intrinsically better, or at least somehow “further,” aesthetically, than Britt Daniel doing Kurt Cobain here?

So after a decade of unraveling, it’s come to this. Transference is Spoon’s lonely guy record. Because, we hear you, and you’re so correct in pointing it out: Spoon is and has always been about late-nights, hanging out, unbridled and overdriven mawkishness, those sorta things. Kill the Moonlight (2002), Gimme Fiction (2005), A Series of Sneaks (1998): these are all records about having a purpose, their songs muscular, object-bent, with rhythms that push forward, a drum sound that positively snaps, and weird effervescent hooks that wriggle around inside and throughout your head. But as Britt once sang, “it’s not always wedding cake.” Late nights mean morning-afters, and if Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was an all-out, red-eye, primal bender, Transference is waking up in the stranger’s bed hearing faint echoes of last night’s celebrations, remembering fun in slender traces, knowing that overdriven mawkishness is now just confusing and sad.

Because, hey, Britt’s swagger is paramount to his rock star appeal and the sudden introduction of doubt, the drastic wavering of that band-defining confidence, threatens to undermine everything we’ve come to love about these guys. We understand this concern: Spoon has built a reputation on precision and charisma and has now made a record that sounds like practice. Last year’s Got Nuffin’ EP failed for similar reasons; Spoon replaced definitude with a kind of meandering carelessness, for something like “Tweakers,” which represented the sort of half-baked experimentation with which this record could have been rife.

Though it’s true Spoon’s trademark exactness, the almost tangible finality of their work, is absent here, the sketch-like quality of songs like “The Mystery Zone” and “Who Makes Your Money”—where transitions take the form of jump cuts and Britt falls in and out of the mix like he can’t get a grip on the mic—is no accident. The studio gimmickry that lends earlier Spoon material its robustness is still in full swing across Transference, but the difference is that it’s now used to highlight absence rather than presence. Yes, it’s reflective; the “agony of Britt” made aesthetic. This is the same seared spoonmeat, though of a distinctly different cut (and more tender).

Chet refers to this as just another breakup album, but it’s never so straightforward: here they’re taking single referents (“love,” “destruction,” “trouble”) and exploding them into big messy undefined “songs” with so many interlocking parts it’s easy to lose track of what’s going where, or how this part fits with that part, and why and when. All of this uncertainty, of course, is deliberate; call it a case of precision precisely obscured. On Transference Britt is confused about a great many things—he sounds ripped up, often distraught—but he has no trouble rendering that confusion meticulously. The music telegraphs the heartbreak, makes it both confounding and seemingly contained; casting this off as Britt’s “mackscapades” is an unfortunate misreading of the record.

If Transference has one major flaw, it’s that the album’s very essence (its ambiguity) leaves it wide open to criticism. A newly sensitive and self-aware Britt can be easily recast as some sort of sleazy womanizer with a guilt-complex; the wry, confident Britt of jams like “Turn My Camera On” and “The Way We Get By” doesn’t invite the same ire in detractors the way “I Saw The Light” and “Goodnight Laura”‘s mopier, more ruminative Britt seems to. This would be a “transitional” record insofar as the band has produced a piece of work entirely about a moment of transition. And as Transference points out over and again, transition is often abrupt, sometimes ugly. The sudden cut-off that wipes out “The Mystery Zone” leaves no pause for rumination, no conclusion, doesn’t go the places it hints at but makes music out of the hint itself. There’s dogged persistence to Jim Eno’s thin backbeat, and Rob Pope’s bass line alternates between the straight-faced and the playfully abstract. Britt, himself, drops lines then goes a bar without singing before cutting in like nothing’s happened. And nothing has. It’s a cute moment.

“Who Makes Your Money” is a come-on. Britt isn’t asking here; he knows all too well. These sound more like open admissions than the last ten years’ invitation to hang out and mack out. “I Saw The Light” offers ambiguity in the way it presents its central metaphor: is Britt accepting a revelation, or is he resigning himself to confirmation that it’s over? The latter makes sense given Transference’s bitter ending, how “Nobody Gets Me But You” becomes the last, desperate plea to the one he knows is already long-gone—how many times has Britt said this to her before and how many “you“s have been the only ones to get him? Time to annoy Clay now and call “Goodnight Laura” this record’s “Treefingers.”

The triumphant horns of “The Underdog” are nowhere to be found on Transference; there’s nothing celebratory about this experimental rock album called Transference. The band is putting it on the line. Chet even admits that a great deal of this material just sounds gorgeous, the major difference here being that “gorgeous” is backlit by the band’s intentions, that, over and over, methodically, “gorgeous” be lightly skewered into forms of ugliness, shades of doubt. This isn’t a break-up album. This is more like what happens after so many break-ups forces one to think again about the value of a connection, or what values certain connections had, the whole risible deal, that sorta thing. Kind of like how so many cocksure, Friday-night records might make a band want to switch things up, see what else might work. That is why this record is called fucking Transference: it requires a leap of faith.