Spoon have spent the past two decades proving that minimalism doesn’t need to mean thinking small. Throughout their eight albums, the Austin band has stuck with a bedrock sound built on chugging guitar, crisp hooks and frontman Britt Daniel’s wryly incisive vocals. It’s what Spoon have done with that sound that’s interesting – adding studio craft and classic-pop dynamics to songwriting that often cuts deeper than it lets on. The tensely coiled anxiety of their 2002 watershed album, Kill the Moonlight, was perfect for kids feeling burned by the Bush years; 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga snuck into the Top 10 thanks to a bona fide pop jewel, “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb.” No failed electronic experiment or breakup drama has sullied their run. It’s just been one long stretch of slow-build greatness.
Daniel’s unlikely swagger has always been Spoon’s not-so-secret weapon. He’s a smart, button-down-shirt kind of guy who sings with a mix of parched aggression and refined distance – a white soulboy who first felt the spirit listening to the Pixies. Over the years, he’s led Spoon to a comfortable space somewhere between Wire‘s skeletal post-punk, the Bee Gees‘ late-Sixties art pop and the Seventies Stones’ tossed-off brio.
Spoon’s eighth album is an immediate grabber on par with the group’s best work to date. It’s also the first time Spoon have worked extensively with big-name producers (alt-rock mainstays Joe Chiccarelli and Dave Fridmann), who’ve helped create a rich, luminous sound for a set of hooky songs. Album opener “Rent I Pay” kicks things off with an unadorned snare-drum smack. From there they build a tough, slow-churning track: brittle chords, gutrumble bass and garage-y organ back Daniel’s barked lyrics about sacrifice and self-respect. On “Inside Out,” he rocks a falsetto over a loping trip-hop beat; “I Just Don’t Understand” is a pleading early-Sixties R&B ballad minus any cutesiness.
The broad musical palette makes room for some of Daniel’s most emotional lyrics ever. He’s never exactly been Doctor Empathy, usually preferring to write from a guarded remove. Here there’s more give, clarity and romance. “Do you want to get understood?” he asks on the plaintive “Do You.” “Outliers” big-ups a girl who “walked out of Garden State” because she “had taste.” It’s a nice moment of self-deprecating wit: a guy who’s cashed a few checks by placing songs on Veronica Mars and The O.C. taking a shot at the movie that helped make Hollywood safe for indie pop.
The record ends with what might be the slickest, catchiest Spoon song yet. “New York Kiss” rides a surging dancerock groove worthy of LCD Soundsystem (or Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove,” for that matter), cut through with shadow-play synths, rippling marimbas and haunted guitar rattle. Daniel sings about a fly girl from an exotic city and a memory that hits “clear and sharp” every time he’s back in town. A couple of decades ago, this might’ve been a rock-radio outlier. That era is long past. But Spoon have always done surprisingly well on their own terms, in their own world. And that world sounds bigger and brighter than ever.