There have been two moments in recent months in which images of cowboy hats appeared unannounced on my laptop screen atop decidedly unexpected heads. The first was last summer, after Jeff Bezos’s first trip to space in his Blue Origin suborbital rocket, when he was photographed strutting around its far West Texas launch site in a blue jumpsuit and ten-gallon hat. Apparently, he’d been wearing the hat as part of his space exploration costume for a while, but I’ll confess I’d paid no attention at all until that point. Lots of chest-thumping national figures have moved to Texas of late, from Elon Musk to Joe Rogan to Bezos’s space travel venture, and I’d not read one word about any of them. I don’t know if they cited the myth of the Texas maverick or our wide-open spaces or our pro-business political climate in explaining their moves; I’d assumed it had mostly to do with our lack of a personal income tax and left it at that. Modern life provides enough to fret over without adding those dudes’ whims into the mix. But then I saw Bezos in that hat. Oh man, did he look goofy.
The second out-of-the-blue cowboy hat, on the other hand, hit me where I live. It came last month when Spoon premiered the video for “Wild,” the second single off the band’s new album, Lucifer on the Sofa. The opening shot, brief as a finger snap, showed a figure in silhouette, backlit by a lightning flash, wearing a cowboy hat. Then came looks at remote desert terrain, an old reel-to-reel tape machine rolling at the base of a rocky cliff face, circling buzzards, and, finally, a lone figure ambling along the dotted centerline of a remote stretch of highway, all in glorious black and white, like an old Hollywood western or maybe The Last Picture Show.
When the solitary figure finally came fully into view, it was Spoon front man Britt Daniel, sporting not just a cowboy hat but also sharply pointed, roach-stomper boots and a spotty blond beard. For hard-core Spoon nerds (and I count myself among them—I sheepishly copped to as much in a review of their last album, 2017’s Hot Thoughts), this look was beyond counterintuitive. Daniel and the band have never shied from their Texas roots, but they’ve also never played them up, certainly not in their look. And as one of the geeks who drops everything whenever Spoon releases a new record or video, and who reads every word written about the band in between—who is aware, for instance, that Daniel reportedly enforced a “no beards” edict on band members for years—the sight of him bearded, booted, and behatted was no less shocking than if he’d been trailed by the UT marching band.
But let me back up. Even before the video came out, I was already somewhat flummoxed by Lucifer on the Sofa. Not troubled, mind you. I had been playing a review copy nonstop for a week, falling a little more in love with each listen. It is, as the record-store clerks might suggest, a grower, putting it for me in class with Spoon’s 2010 effort, Transference, which, if you put a knife to my throat, I’d call my favorite Spoon record. (No wait, it’s actually the first Spoon I fell for, 1998’s A Series of Sneaks . . . no wait, it’s the last record, Hot Thoughts . . . no wait, knife or no knife, I think I’d rather just not answer this question.) Like Transference, Lucifer is a departure from all Spoon that’s come before. But that’s actually a big-picture hallmark of the band’s career. Spoon doesn’t repeat itself. And even when a new record’s new sound is fuller than the minimalism that first brought the band notice, as happened with Transference and now with Lucifer, that doesn’t keep fans from digging it. Because Spoon always drops in enough small-print, signature accents to remind us, unmistakably, of whom we are listening to.
Such is the case with Lucifer. Lead track “Held,” a Bill Callahan cover, opens with a recording engineer’s instructions captured on the studio’s talkback microphone, mixed with some seemingly random band tune-up, a classic Spoon move that places listeners squarely in the room during the recording. The song then starts in earnest with drummer Jim Eno, the only remaining founding member besides Daniel, knocking out a big-beat pocket, soon joined by a roiling guitar riff. It’s a strong indication that the drum machine and synthesizers that featured so heavily on Hot Thoughts were left in the closet for Lucifer, a thought confirmed on track two, lead single “The Hardest Cut.” The song, an absolute stomper featuring some of the most fuzzed-up, violent guitar-banging in the Spoon canon, sounds almost dangerous; it’s going to be a highlight of live shows for as long as the band keeps playing.
From there, Lucifer plays out like all great Spoon, with melodies that feel familiar on first listen, punctuated by wonderful little instrumental surprises. The lullaby “Astral Jacket” features a whispered vocal carried along by Wurlitzer piano, classical guitar, and periodic beats on a marching band’s bass drum. “On the Radio” is a careening, piano-driven ode to the deejays who brought the world outside Temple to Daniel when he was a kid. Of all the songs on the record, it was the one that first grabbed the two fellow fanboys with whom I confer when new Spoon debuts—who were, by the way, leery of appearing in a second Spoon record review and asked to remain nameless. One said it reminded him instantly of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album. The other agreed, adding that he thought the song could be called “Lucifer on the Sofa With Diamonds.” I loved that line.
Still, I was having trouble getting my head around the record, hung up on two words written repeatedly in the press kit that accompanied my review copy: classic rock. The thought was born of a quote Daniel gave Rolling Stone last October, when he announced Lucifer’s coming release. “It’s the sound of classic rock,” he said, “as written by a guy who never did get Eric Clapton.” Daniel fleshed that out in an interview with Texas Monthly the following month, when “The Hardest Cut” dropped, in which he said the song was inspired by a deep dive into the ZZ Top catalog. He called it “Texas highway rock.” So when I first put the record on, I was listening for that. But I heard none of it—no greasy Texas blues, no cowbell. And I was confused.
I don’t know why I was being so literal, least of all in this context. Years ago, not long after 2001’s Girls Can Tell came out, Daniel told me that a big influence for that album had been Motown, specifically early Supremes records. I couldn’t hear that either, but it didn’t matter a whit. I loved the whole album. Similarly, Paul McCartney’s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” are said to be those artists’ takes on reggae; neither has ever sounded remotely like Studio One or Lee “Scratch” Perry to me, but so what? Those are great songs.
But whether the problem was the stress of an impending deadline or two years of COVID-19 paranoia, I started to obsess. I had to shoehorn what I was hearing into the classic rock category. Now, I’m from the seventies, so I’d been listening with an ear out for the Allmans and Skynyrd. But I expanded the term’s definition to the eighties, as classic rock radio does anyhow. And suddenly I developed a new sense of the three back-to-back songs that, for me, comprise the heart of the album.
It starts at the third track, “The Devil & Mr. Jones,” a loping, poppy number with sweet, subtle vibraphone licks in the chorus. But the song also has a pounding, brass-heavy intro that echos David Bowie’s 1983 hit “Let’s Dance.” Sure, “Suffragette City” and “Rebel Rebel” are more likely to get played on classic rock stations, but again, I was desperate, and Daniel has always cited Bowie as a huge influence. Then comes “Wild,” with its chiming guitars and a double-time rhythm slapped on hi-hat cymbals, which makes me think of U2—specifically their landmark, twelve-minute performance of “Bad” at Live Aid in 1985—and a rave-y, house-music piano line reminiscent of George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90.” The song builds slowly to a sing-along chorus, as does the one that follows, “My Babe,” which features what may be the most straightforward lines Daniel’s ever written: “Sing my heart out / Beat my chest for / My babe!” And finally, there was the answer: these are anthems, a classic rock cornerstone. They may not sound anything like “Ramblin’ Man” or “Sweet Home Alabama,” but they have that same, distinct power. The nut was cracked.
Until it wasn’t. Soon the “Wild” video premiered, with Daniel in that long-eschewed cowboy suit, knocking me back off-balance. I reached out to my nerds, who were equally mystified. One pointed out similarities to two videos he’d enjoyed in his youth, R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon,” which was shot on a black and white desertscape, and Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me,” which opens with the Queen of Pop—in a beat-to-hell straw cowboy hat—walking down a lonely stretch of highway that turns out to be projected onto a screen behind her, just like Daniel’s reveal in “Wild.”
But my buddy also groused about this moment in Texas history, about the alpha-dog tech bros moving in and throwing their arms around our myths. Not that he lumped Britt Daniel, an actual Texan, in with that lot; he just didn’t want the video to encourage them.
My head was swimming. There were too many dots, and no clear lines to connect them.
The next day, I called Britt. He’s a good guy, always friendly when we manage to hang and gracious when I interview him, remarkably patient with my overwrought questions. He explained away the classic rock conundrum almost instantly. “One thing we talked about before recording this record,” he began, “was this notion of where rock music was from ’68 and ’69 through ’73, and the way those records sound. This was the eight-track era. So it’s past the time of recording in Sun Studios to either mono or stereo tape, but you’re not yet at the ‘Fleetwood Mac slinging two twenty-four tracks together at the Village Studio’ era. You had to know what you’re doing before you start recording. Every part had to have a purpose. So we discussed that—the sound of Zeppelin IV, or the Doors’ Strange Days, or any of those Creedence records, which was really the sound of limitations.”
“So it’s more of a process thing than something sonic?” I asked.
“It’s like a directive,” he said. “We were not going to throw endless tracks at this album. On the last record, Hot Thoughts, we’d often start with a demo I’d done and then build on that as we were figuring out the lyrics and what the song was, what the song did. That’s one way of making music, and it’s cool. But there’s another way of making music, where you get together as a band, play the songs in a room, and figure out what all the parts are ahead of time. That’s what you had to do back then. You end up with a different type of sound—and a different kind of song, too, when you’ve written them before you hit the record button.”
Things were starting to make sense. But what about the big-stadium feel of “Wild” and “My Babe”? Britt explained. “I hear what you are saying about those being kinda anthemic,” he said. “I do like songs like that—when they’re done right. Just don’t know that I’ve written many. But somehow it seemed to happen this time.”
Indeed it did. I started gushing. “It’s so easy to picture massive crowds at outdoor shows,” I said, “waving lighters in the air and singing every word, especially to ‘My Babe.’ Just listening to it by myself, on headphones, felt like I was part of a collective experience.”
“Oh, that’s cool,” he said. “We need more collective experiences, even if it’s imaginary.”
There was one topic left: the hat in the “Wild” video. Britt swore he’d had it a good while. “I did not buy anything new for the video,” he said. “Those are all my clothes.” But why wear them out now? Was the video a message to the big-money interlopers? Did that stretch of highway, by chance, run by Bezos’s launchpad? Britt laughed. “Of course your mind goes to that,” he said, before being suddenly interrupted by a knock at his door. When he came back, he added, “It is strange, this immigration.”
So there they were, all the answers, two on point and one wonderfully, characteristically cryptic. Now I could enjoy Lucifer on the Sofa without the voices in my head muddying the sound.
But I hold to my idea on “Wild.” Britt’s got his take on classic rock, and I’ve now got mine on the video. And going forward, whenever I watch it or just hear the song, I’ll imagine a solitary Britt Daniel, walking purposefully past the Blue Origin complex, in a beard more reluctant than rugged, and a hat and boots that don’t look entirely comfortable—but that no personal shopper researched and bought for him—letting Jeff Bezos and his ilk know that, “Yes, there’s a Texas myth. But I’m from here, and I can tell you it’s much bigger than you realize, with room in it for me and all the music that turns me on.
“Oh, and Madonna gets to wear that hat. Because she is a cowboy. And you, sirs, are not.”