By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Enough with the deconstruction already. It has served Spoon tremendously well for 16 years and seven albums now, this urge to strip their sharp, brash, stylishly grouchy mod-rock down to its rawest, most skeletal form. A Wall of Sound reverse-engineered into a geometrically precise pile of bricks; a perfect, lovingly crafted pop song painstakingly roughed up until it sounds like a tossed-off, four-track shrug; a tousled-bedhead look that takes hours of fussing and gallons of hair gel to achieve.
I have derived more pleasure from Spoon's output than that of any other band in the 21st century (they weren't hailed as Metacritic's Artist of the Decade for nothing), and parts of Transference, out next week, conjure up that same strutting, insouciant joy. But these are not so much songs as attitudes, stern and spare and stubbornly unpolished, mere ghosts of the fully realized grandeur the nominally Austin-based quartet is capable of delivering. The band notes that five of these 11 songs are presented in their original demo versions—they clearly consider this a good thing. Whatever comes after "skeletal," this is it. Any more forced entropy and the next Spoon record might consist solely of Polaroid photos of their instruments.
Consider the relative warmth and vivacity of 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (if you think that's bad, the working title for Transference was apparently Me and Matty Pickles), home to the gorgeous, reverb-saturated Motown homage "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" and the swinging, horn-blaring goof "The Underdog," neither monuments of sonic excess themselves, but working in effective contrast to more Spartan fare like "The Ghost of You Lingers," which consisted entirely of stabbing piano and frontman Britt Daniels's spectral, multi-tracked mutterings. Transference tends toward the wraithlike, gaunt, and surly, reprising Spoon's actually quite appealing habit of dropping idle studio detritus (in the past, mostly false starts, intra-band arguments, complaints about the temperature of the recording booth, etc.) into the mix and adding a sort of ramshackle volatility: Backing-vocal tracks, lyrical phrases, and whole songs here are abruptly cut off or brusquely faded out, as if you're listening to a hastily made bootleg, a sort of aural pre-ripped-jeans effect.
This austerity has, of course, once you adjust to it, enormous appeal, especially when they push just slightly beyond it. "Before Destruction" sets the tone with little more than a simple drum loop, acoustic guitar, a few buzzing organ drones, and Daniels's typically gnomic proclamations ("Everyone loves you for your black eye"), but as it rumbles along, more ghostly voices accrue—it doesn't bloom exactly, but the barren terrain fills out a little. Forty-odd minutes later, we conclude with "Nobody Gets Me But You," another bone-simple, kick-snare drumbeat fused to a minimalist-funk bassline and set blithely adrift, a clattering assortment of jaunty pianos and brittle guitar lines slowly intruding and embellishing. Though not exactly rousing, it's hypnotic enough with a good pair of headphones and your undivided attention.
A few livelier, poppier cherry bombs sneak into the interim. "Written in Reverse" is the loudest, most menacing Spoon track in ages, huge swooping piano jolts and a less constrained rhythm section goosing an uncharacteristically unhinged Daniel as he preens and smirks and howls various esoteric threats ("I'm writing this to ya in reverse/Someone better call a hearse"); the coiled, stuttering tension only breaks for one glorious nine-second, two-chord freak-out ("Look out!" Daniel warns, joyously), but it's a thrilling nine seconds nonetheless. "Trouble Comes Running," though defiantly demo-ish—it sounds like it's blaring out of an old clock radio—boasts the record's biggest, brightest pop hook. And "The Mystery Zone" makes the most of its dogged, eerie, minor-key malaise as it sketches out some alluring alternate universe: "Picture yourself/Set up for good in a whole other life/In the mystery zone/Make us a house/Some faraway town where nobody will know us well/Where your dad's not around." It's a bit of a monochrome slog, but an immersive one—few bands at this point are better at minimalist texture, of actually doing more with less.
What Transference is missing is the one breakout moment that does more with more. Instead, the highlights here are best appreciated by those who have hung on Daniels's every word—who understand how strange and anomalous "Goodnight Laura" really is: an even more defiantly demo-ish piano ballad lullaby that finds him softly purring, "You can fall asleep by being very still/And you let breath slow down/And when you think your thoughts/Be sure that they are sweet ones," humming the simple melody when he runs out of words. This is not normal behavior for Britt. Even "Out With the Lights," a less unexpected sad-sack shuffle with a more cryptic form of melancholy ("There's a picture of you/Standing there in my black wig") is unexpectedly direct and wistful. Neither tune would be vastly improved by a whimsical Jon Brion overproduction, an overbearing Nico Muhly–led string section, or a bombastic Young Jeezy verse, but you may find yourself yearning for such an intrusion anyway.