It’s difficult to discuss a band like Spoon without uttering the word “cool.” Spoon simply exudes cool, having made a career out of turning the barest of elements into something badass. Their sound reveals a band in control, like a black belt unleashing his neck-snapping offense only when absolutely necessary; in other words, nobody can fuck with them. Britt Daniel rarely allows his voice to escalate beyond a soulful rasp, and he never needs to—a voice like that is made for rock ‘n’ roll. Yet a month before the release of the group’s seventh album, Transference, Spoon unleashed “Written In Reverse,” a ragged and agitated jam that was just slightly more off-kilter than before. And Daniel, once perennially chill, starts to show his nervous, aggressive side, wigging out with an unexpected screech when the song reaches some semblance of a chorus. It may sound contradictory, but that extra element of anxiety actually made them sound even cooler.
As a single, “Written In Reverse” provides some insight into how Spoon has evolved on Transference. On a big-picture scale, it’s not a drastic makeover or reinvention. And yet, given the band’s reputation for taking a novel approach to simple structures and progressions, Transference once again finds them incorporating curious experiments that lend these 11 melodically stunning and accessible songs an unsettling undercurrent. Voices drift in and out, “Mystery Zone” abruptly comes to a halt and some songs are presented in what sounds like demo form, rather than laden with slick overdubs. By removing that barrier of comfort, both their own and that of the listener, Spoon cut straight to a more emotional, raw core that takes a few listens to become accustomed to, but ultimately makes for an incredible listening experience.
Perhaps making an even bigger statement than the jittery barks on “Written In Reverse” is the brooding opener “Before Destruction,” a more mannered and restrained beginning than past explosive statements like “Don’t Make Me A Target.” It sets an oddly eerie tone for the album with its spare sequences often comprising little more than Daniel’s voice and acoustic guitar. Yet it’s easily one of the band’s most hauntingly beautiful songs, particularly due to the buzzing organ accompanying its stark melody. Just one track later, on “Is Love Forever?,” the group cranks out a spunky post-punk jaunt that’s melodically simple, but vocally disorienting. Daniel’s voice cuts out, echoes, starts and stops on odd cues before closing with the anxious mantra, “are you quite certain love?” which may or may not lend some extra insight into the song’s title. By “Mystery Zone,” the band retains some kind of normalcy, building on a groove similar to 2007’s “Don’t You Evah,” only after nearly five minutes, it suddenly comes to a stop mid-measure.
The series of odd edits, sequencing and mixing tricks that take place within the album’s first few tracks gives a strange impression. But as later tracks indicate, the band is being more playfully mischievous than outright difficult. The electronic textures in “Who Makes Your Money?” find Spoon playing around with some fun effects, though not at the expense of a good song. They pull a similar trick in “Nobody Gets Me But You,” but in a looser fashion, extending a simple, Prince-style electro funk into an extended jam, with plenty of bells and whistles erupting in the process. And for as rough and fuzzed-out as “Trouble Comes Running” sounds, its rawness lends the song an endearing immediacy.
Still, in spite of the curiosities that abound on Transference, it’s largely an album that shows off what Spoon does best—simple, soulful rock `n’ roll with swagger to spare. The aforementioned “Written in Reverse” stands up next to their best singles, and its predecessor “Got Nuffin'” is no slouch either, offering a straightforward rock track that’s the most direct Spoon has sounded since A Series of Sneaks. The tender, gorgeous “Out Go the Lights” is another standout, its stark riffs ringing majestically against a bare, melancholy backing, slightly recalling New Order’s less synth-heavy album tracks. And shuffling stomper “I Saw the Light” layers on the power chords and vocal harmonies impeccably before shifting rhythm and tempo into an extended, pulsing outro.
For a band known to refine and season their approach with each release, it’s interesting to hear them adding a little bit of controlled chaos into the mix. Transference isn’t perfect. In fact, I’d wager that the band was intentionally avoiding just that. But the funny thing about Spoon is that their songs are so well written, and their sound so engrossing that no amount of studio chicanery could really detract from something this good. Now, that’s cool.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.