Nobody’s better at making Spoon records than Spoon. It’s a deceptively simple approach: Three- to four-minute rock songs, taut arrangements, muscular grooves and an essentially flawless economy. That it looks so easy is what makes it an appealing trap. Undoubtedly there have been other bands to take on a similar approach and pull it off successfully (Phoenix), though there are just as many imitators who can’t do it justice (Cold War Kids). But there’s another trait that Spoon possesses that sets them apart from those with like-minded aesthetics: They somehow manage to only get better at being themselves.
Hot Thoughts, Spoon’s ninth album and first for Matador Records in 21 years, is the band at their most maximalist and self-aware. Recorded with Dave Fridmann following his partnership with the band on their outstanding 2014 album They Want My Soul, Hot Thoughts employs a similarly effects-laden and synth-heavy approach to their impossibly cool grooves. Once, on albums like 2002′s Kill the Moonlight, Spoon were able to craft a masterpiece with little more than two or three instruments at a time. Now, they’ve graduated to something much more elaborate and kaleidoscopic in approach. It sounds more lush and rich in production, but the core essence of the band hasn’t changed; Hot Thoughts is still identifiably, unmistakably, a Spoon album—an outstanding one.
The two singles the band issued in the weeks before the album’s release—”Can I Sit Next to You” and “Hot Thoughts”—are the moments in which the band are at their Spoon-iest, carrying with them two decades of refinement and the spirits of Bowie and Prince along with them. The former struts like “I Turn My Camera On,” sleek and sexy, yet with the unexpected billow of big ’80s pop synthesizers in its climax. The latter, however, turns the cornball song title into something that has no right to sound as cool as it does. Against a descending bassline and a densely gorgeous arrangement, Britt Daniel chants, “hot thoughts all in my mind/All of the time,” as if he were wagered to make something so goofy sound badass. Challenge accepted and completed—these men are professionals.
Even more than on their previous effort, Spoon allow themselves the liberty of getting weird on Hot Thoughts. Their approach to structure and songwriting is a rock solid foundation upon which an even more colorful and psychedelic work of art can be erected, and a handful of moments here amount to some of their thrilling surprises. There’s a heady pulse of synthesizers that opens “WhisperI’lllistentohearit,” which threatens to delve into heroic M83-style electronic pop, or even full-blown techno, before a funky scratch guitar pairs with Daniel’s vocals. The group plays a neat trick on “Do I Have to Talk You Into It,” essentially reimagining 2002′s “Small Stakes” (with a lyrical nod to Devo) as an outtake from one of Bowie’s Berlin-era albums. “Pink Up” is the second weirdest and most revelatory moment, its vibraphone and steel drum exotica building up into a gorgeously ethereal dirge. “Us” is the weirdest—a five-minute instrumental outro track primarily comprising saxophone and delay effects with a reprisal of “Pink Up”‘s central loop. As much as Spoon reveal the threads that connect Hot Thoughts to where they’ve been, they’re also charting a path forward.
The kind of longevity that Spoon have displayed in more than two decades is rare; even rarer is a band that can somehow always sound relevant and modern without ultimately altering the foundation of who they are. Hot Thoughts is an album that feels utterly contemporary, even alluding to the Hairpiece-in-Chief while laying down a killer soulful rock song (“Let them build a wall/I don’t care at all/I’ll tear it down“). Hot Thoughts sparkles. It shines. It’s draped in the most elegant of finery. But it bears the mark of any great Spoon album: Stripped down and exposed, it would still be stunning.