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Spoon: Transference (Album Review)

I can’t imagine the kind of prude that could dislike a band like Spoon. Sure, they’re a popular indie-pop band coming up during the age of forums and blogs – there’s going to be some backlash. But I fail to understand it: the band basically specializes in carefree, easy-going pop and creamy, irresistible hooks, without becoming (too) annoying. And they’ve done this successfully for four albums straight now, Transference being an attempt to be the fifth. What’s not to like? What kind of self-important douche could not like this kind of shit, at least every once and a while?
Most often, someone who dislikes a Spoon album usually cites the band’s sterile sound as their main problem, which is somewhat understandable: Spoon is a band that keeps their orchestration tight and their songwriting tighter. But this what I like when it comes to, say, Kill the Moonlight or Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. I appreciate how they never overdo it. I visit or revisit a Spoon album with the expectation that I’m going to get the kind of suave, taut hooks that the band specializes in, accented by Britt Daniel’s slanted, uneven wails.
And this is why I like Transference so much. Sure, it’s different enough from their other stuff to not be considered a retread of old material – the off-key piano ballad “Goodnight Laura” and the trippy, oddly funky psych-out “Who Makes Your Money” are key examples of great songs that differ from the idea of a traditional Spoon song. But much of Transference has all the aesthetic hallmarks of a great Spoon album, if not being thematically being what Spoon’s previous albums were all about (more on that later). As noted, this is hardly a bad thing, especially when this tried formula results in songs as irresistible as “The Mystery Zone” and “Written in Reverse”.
Yet there’s still something different about Transference, something that’s hard to put a finger on. There aren’t any drastic changes in Spoon’s sound here – no fifteen-minute noise freakouts, no Britt Daniel getting all fucked up on heroin and sounding like a tortured cat. It’s a Spoon album. It sounds like one, has the same great hooks like one, has Britt Daniel sounding great. Yet there is something darker, found in songs like “I Saw the Light”, which is an angular piece that’s also one of Spoon’s heavier songs, in both Daniel’s impassioned singing and in the layered, grunge-y guitar work. Songs like “Goodnight Laura” and “Out Go the Lights” are even fucking mournful. What the hell’s up, Spoon? Why so down?
Here’s what I think it is: while Kill the Moonlight was a minimalist pop album that was heavily influenced by Prince, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga took its cues from Jamacian dub, Transference seems to be influenced by some much heavier shit, being 80s post-punk. Songs meander a bit more here; “Out Go The Lights” and “I Saw the Light” each have extended instrumental codas. They create an atmosphere, not unlike, say, Public Image Ltd. or The Cure, and the atmosphere created is usually not a happier one. Even more upbeat fare, like “Trouble Comes Running”, is thematically a little dark, especially lyrically; a notion all the more reinforced by “Goodnight Laura” following right after.
These subtle shades of darkness are perhaps what truly makes Transference so appealing to me, and a very early entry into 2010’s canon of excellent albums (yes I know it’s only fucking January!). It’s an album that presents Spoon as a multi-faceted band, a band that still sounds like the kind of mildly adventurous yet still very poppy band that they’ve built up a reputation as, only with a little more edge. It’s an album that presents the kind of Spoon that’s all too easy to fall in love with.