A Fanboy’s Notes
Spoon is my favorite band. Spoon has a new album out. It is my favorite Spoon album. That is all.
Early on Tuesday, January 17, Spoon released a new single, “Hot Thoughts,” on YouTube. The Texas Monthly editorial staff happened to be meeting that morning, and I was seated far too close to the editor in chief to be multitasking, particularly if it required the deft handling of gadgetry. Fifteen minutes into our conference, the EIC segued into a special announcement, just as I pulled up “Hot Thoughts” on my phone. Its opening sound—a sinister, two-note harmony line hummed by a distorted organ—blared through the room. The staff laughed as I fumbled for the mute button, assuming I was part of the presentation. I let them think that. Then I hit “send” on an email sharing the song with two friends, Timmy and Benji (not their real names). The time was 9:19 a.m., and according to YouTube, “Hot Thoughts” had been alive online for all of two minutes.
Such shares are a ritual almost as old as my email account. I first heard Spoon on Benji’s mom’s couch, in Austin, one night in May 1998. I was 31, and Benji was 24—and I feel compelled to point out that neither of us still lived with our parents; he just happened to be home from law school. He played Spoon’s then-new second album, A Series of Sneaks, and then we met Timmy at a Spoon show at Emo’s. I greatly dug the record, the way Spoon’s spare sound married raw, angular rock riffs to warm pop melodies. But I was floored by the performance, by lead singer Britt Daniel’s uncanny control of the room, by the way the people in the crowd followed every herky-jerky head fake from Daniel as if they were another band member watching for a cue. I realized I was fixating too. Spoon’s been my favorite band ever since.
Beginning shortly thereafter, the release of any new Spoon has occasioned an impassioned email exchange between the three of us. We discuss everything from the songs themselves to the prudence of the track sequencing to the way the cover art makes us feel inside. Even for someone who overthinks for a living, the depth of the analysis is embarrassing. These are the kinds of emails I fear my wife will discover.
In 2010 there was a three-day back-and-forth on the band’s aesthetic sensibility in which straight lines were drawn from Spoon to Sigmund Freud, Bob Dylan, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Walter Benjamin, and Black Sabbath. A three-week thread on 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga name-checked, among many, many others, ELO, late-period Jam, the Counting Crows, Fiona Apple, Françoise Hardy, and sportswriter Frank Deford. The conversation wasn’t tabled until Benji asked, in all seriousness, “Have I told you that it’s fun to sing ‘Finer Feelings’ like Louis Armstrong? Not along with the recording, just on your own?”
Our most recent discussion was our longest and also the most trying. It followed the 2014 release of They Want My Soul, the first new Spoon album that didn’t instantly become my new favorite Spoon album. I didn’t hear the risks they’d taken previously. The referents for the songs weren’t unexpected twists like old Motown but other, earlier Spoon songs. It was Spoon for people who didn’t like Spoon yet.
Through 97 emails over nearly six months, the guys consoled and cajoled me. They told me which songs opened up on headphones and which sounded best in the car. They told me how great the songs sounded live. To an extent they were, as always, preaching to the choir. When Texas Monthly compiled a best of 2014 Spotify playlist, four of my ten picks were off They Want My Soul. I thought they were the four best songs by any Texas artist that year. But I never quite fell for the album as a whole.
Which explains my urgency when “Hot Thoughts” dropped. Timmy and Benji are musicians. They discuss the mechanics of melodies with terms like “flat fifths.” I keep up chiefly because I get review copies of new Spoon well before they ever hear it. My take has longer to gestate. In the case of Spoon’s newest album, also called Hot Thoughts and due out March 17, I’d been listening to a “for your ears only” advance copy nonstop since the turn of the year. I’d talked about it with both Daniel and band drummer and co-founder Jim Eno. The single’s release was my chance to, finally, let the guys know that Spoon had made its masterpiece.
I met with Daniel in early January in the loft he keeps in Austin. (He splits his time between there and Los Angeles.) He’s a casual friend and a good guy; when I asked to listen to Hot Thoughts with him, he offered up his last Austin afternoon for the foreseeable future on a day’s notice. The loft’s living area was exactly as expected: lots of space, a concrete floor, white walls, and a high ceiling, with just a couch, a coffee table, and a large stereo against one wall, flanked by long rows of vinyl. Essentially the interior design equivalent of a Spoon song. Daniel set a laptop near a wireless speaker, handed me a Topo Chico, and then sat patiently as I asked questions like “Why do I love this album so much?”
“I went into the studio with a lot of songs,” he said. When I asked if the record was meant to be a departure, he just looked at me for a second. “I don’t think anybody is making records like this,” he said, “rock records that are pretty out there and largely devoid of guitars.”
Then he opened his laptop and hit play, and at least one of us calmed down considerably. Hot Thoughts opens with the title track, and the sustained organ notes are vaguely reminiscent of the intro to “Inside Out,” many fans’ favorite song off They Want My Soul. But any expectations brought on by that association are quickly jolted. A drum loop enters with a tinny beat and handclaps, followed by Daniel’s double-tracked lead vocal, his falsetto voice harmonizing uneasily with his regular voice as he sings about an obsessive attraction to a mysterious woman. Guitars then usher in the song proper, accompanied by cascading chimes from a celesta. Those bell tones are a perfect Spoon curveball, a sound that hasn’t shown up on any of their previous records. For me, the thrill of new Spoon is always in finding those surprises, like the beatboxing that opens “Stay Don’t Go,” the small string section on “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine,” and the horns and vibraphone on “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb.” Spoon at its best always shows something new.
But “Hot Thoughts” doesn’t stop at the celesta. This is not merely a return to form. The song builds and swells, layering in synthesized strings, organ lines, stray moans, shakers, and drum fills. At points it sounds claustrophobic, which serves the song perfectly. It sounds the way an obsession feels, unsettling, overwhelming. And it signals the album’s real revelation: a new, large sound, awash in keyboards, synthesizers, and dance beats that somehow is still unmistakably Spoon.
Daniel indicated the new direction was just natural growth, citing multi-instrumentalist Alex Fischel, a carryover from Daniel’s side project, Divine Fits. “Now I have somebody [in the studio] playing the parts I can’t play. Before, if I couldn’t play something, it wasn’t going on the record.” And producer Dave Fridmann, best known for helping create the trippy bombast of psych-rockers the Flaming Lips, had a clear, if slightly restrained, hand in it. “I tend to make things ridiculously dramatic,” explained Fridmann by phone. “I tend to be theatrical in my dealings with music. The band would say, ‘Yeah, Dave, that’s really cool. But it still needs to be Spoon.’ ”
That they created a big, full-sounding Spoon is a tremendous achievement. But it’s the big statement the record makes, wholly unintended but perfectly timed, that qualifies it as a masterpiece.
I once joked with Timmy and Benji that all Spoon songs are either odes to an idealized lost love or a rock star’s revenge on bullies from his youth. Everything on Hot Thoughts has some sense of the latter. An ominous tension permeates the record. Daniel repeatedly used the word “menace” when I asked what he meant to convey with certain sounds and lyrics. The one song he described as “coming from a place of vulnerability” is a hard-charging dance-rock cut entitled “Shotgun.” “We didn’t have on ‘Menace’ T-shirts in the studio,” said Eno, “but yeah, it came up a couple times.”
That sense of menace is the key to the album. For people convinced that a bully is now president—the decidedly left-leaning Daniel among them—that undercurrent of defiance, that swagger, matters. Spoon actually finished the album in October, before the election. Anticipating a Clinton win, Daniel expected the message of the record’s one overtly political song, “Tear It Down,” which alludes to Donald Trump’s wall, to be of primarily historical interest when fans finally heard it. Not anymore. Similarly, whatever Daniel intended when he wrote the eerie, Moroccan-flavored “Pink Up,” it now sounds like something that should have been playing in every earbud when the pink seas of protesters marched the day after Trump’s inauguration. Especially this couplet from the chorus: “Everything you fear we are, we will be / The time is gonna come.”
Hot Thoughts is the record that a lot of Spoon fans need right now. “I wasn’t loving everything going on when we made this—on the planet or in politics,” said Daniel. “But my mood was good. I was feeling inspired and productive and kind of unstoppable.”
Timmy and Benji refused to email thoughts on the single unless I shared the whole album. With Daniel’s blessing, I got a publicist to send it instead. That night, the emails started flying.
Timmy wrote that “Hot Thoughts” gave him “tingly feelings,” which Benji and I let pass without remark. Benji hit his standard reference points—Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Bowie, and, oddly, James Bond—but then brought up “eighties/nineties Euro disco rock” and Marty Robbins. I was pleased when he praised my mention of Devo’s “Gut Feeling.”
Their initial reaction jibed with mine. “The most prominent difference,” wrote Benji, “is keyboards in all their varieties. They are somehow rhythmic (classic Girls Can Tell, finding-their-voice Spoon) and loose (like nothing they’ve done before) and warm (also new).” Timmy added, “Was this what it was like for Stevie Wonder’s fans when he became obsessed with synths and weird keyboard sounds in the early seventies?”
The exchange lasted weeks. At one point I asked if Hot Thoughts was as much of a leap as Kid A had been for Radiohead. Benji responded late that night, apparently from a bar. “No, it’s more like In Rainbows. Warm, emotional, hot, dancey, maybe less dreamy than In Rainbows, but like it, a move from black-and-white into color.” Timmy really liked that.
And they both love the album. I asked if they agreed that this is Spoon’s masterpiece.
“Which of your children do you love the most?” wrote Timmy.
“I would argue that the overall Spoon oeuvre is the masterpiece,” wrote Benji.
I thought both responses sounded a little geeky. But I guess some Spoon fans will get that way.