(Merge; 2010)

By Chet Betz | 24 January 2010

Let me just speak as someone who owns every Spoon LP up to Lord Ga Ga: Really? We’re gonna pat this shit on the back?

That thought came to me first as I listened to “Goodnight Laura,” a half-assed piano ballad like Billy Joel on a mellow, knowing that somewhere out in the world thousands of Spoon fans (including CMG’s own Alan Baban and Calum Marsh and several other staffers) were thinking of this song as “sweetly half-assed” or forgiving it in lieu of whatever’s supposed to be great about the rest of this new Spoon record. Or, just maybe, the fans and the critics and even some of Spoon’s brightest admirers like my colleagues were engaged in their own transference of good-will built on the back of an indie rock actualization that exists in the form of seminal A Series of Sneaks (1998) or the unbelievable front-ends of Girls Can Tell (2001), Kill the Moonlight (2002), and Gimme Fiction (2005) or what was the career highlight for many followers in the form of CMG’s top record of 2007. Not a personal favorite but it bears the merit of containing “The Ghost of You Lingers,” an astounding aesthetic leap forward for the band where they culled beauty out of a radically staccato approach to piano chords and Britt’s voice hovering through the channels, manipulated into variant echoes of itself. By contrast, on “Goodnight Laura” Britt fucking hums the mushy lead melody.

Perhaps it’s unfair to pick on what’s clearly one of the record’s weakest tracks; it’s not like Transference is a total waste of a listen. In fact, where the band return to their somewhat more experimental tendencies—what Boogz for some reason calls their “offbeat psych stuff”—they achieve a trio of excellent Kill the Moonlight throwbacks, rhythm-centric and full of craftily layered cut-ups. But I reference that record rather than the more recent “Ghost of You Lingers” because like “Paper Tiger” or “Stay Don’t Go” this trio consists of straight-up pop songs in couture clothing rather than the subtle yet bracing paradigm shift in “Ghost” where the very flesh and blood of the song was made from the same fabric of its left-field musical concept—seamless pop grown organically from an esoteric gene. The cool sonic pastiche that shines in these Transference songs is the kind of surface appeal that, as opposed to fundamental innovation, is more subject to the law of diminishing returns when a band continue to pull it out of their bag of tricks. Still, some of this shit’s gorgeous: the guitar progression that breaks in halfway through “Who Makes Your Money?” and resolves in breathtaking harmony with a second guitar or the whole composure with which “Out Go the Lights” and “Nobody Gets Me But You” finish by weaving together effects both goofy and sublime. At the time of writing this I haven’t seen a draft for Alan and Calum’s counterpoint, so let me just say that it would behoove them to focus on these songs.

Because it seems pretty apparent that the plain-faced yet awkward bop of ditties like “The Mystery Zone” and “Trouble Comes Running” is a disappointment, underachieving on so many levels they almost feel intended for a “minor work”; plus, everything is thrown together so casually under that slouching cover image that maybe the album should have been titled It’s Whatever. Clay Purdom calls it “muppet rock,” which I think might have to do with this being the kind of Spoon music that Spoon would likely play through foam ‘n fur caricatures of themselves. Which they would do to lighten the supposed impact of this thing being all about the frontman’s relational pain. At a juncture where Spoon are coming off their most well-received album to date, Transference gives the distinct impression of a band taking themselves seriously but trying to mitigate that by not taking the work of crafting a great album seriously—attitudinal inverse of what it should be. Cheeseball titles like “Got Nuffin’” and “Is Love Forever?” and burbling bass lines and wordless noises that Britt makes are likely good-natured attempts at levity and yet I cringe at them; the sum total is glib slop because of how the contrary tones of tousled hair and bleeding heart are so haphazardly integrated. Like, it’s all benefit of the doubt to justify by way of album title the abrupt mid-outro segues that pop up (though in the case of “The Mystery Zone” it’s a mercy killing).

Alan wants to call this “the agony of Britt” and I see entering the field of discussion how many points we should give the record for being a break-up album, as if the world doesn’t have enough of those. For one, it’s difficult to avoid letting rumors of Britt’s mackscapades taint one’s perception of the theme here (CMG’s got friends you never called back, Britt [or just creeped out]) but move away from slander and Transference becomes even less interesting and/or affecting. Here the break-up aftermath leaves Britt full of uncertainty in the most obvious and uncompelling way possible: track titles/themes that are questions and songs that consist of series of negating or circular statements. “Written in Reverse” is half Cobainisms, for crying out loud. “I Saw the Light” stands out from the pack as an emphatically affirmative declaration that, well, Britt saw the light; this assertion is intended as a beautiful, saving simplicity, I’m sure, but the centerpiece posturing (the track’s placement, length, “epic” build) give it the air of a desperate yet shallow stab at profundity. Yeah, the song goes nowhere and is immediately swallowed back up by (and in its long outro even party to) the album’s congenial melancholy; however, rather than that being some sort of smart statement on the band’s part, it just comes off—due in part to the absolute dearth of lyrical insight on the record—as another example of the self-defeating M.O. of an album that’s 100% transference. I mean, careful consideration shows that Transference really is exactly the record that Spoon intend it to be. It’s just not a record that anyone really needs, one from which our feelings will all-too-easily transfer the next time that Spoon put out a record that inevitably reminds us of Spoon.

So, I guess you could say, the legacy continues.