On “Finer Feelings” from 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon front man Britt Daniel postulated a remedy for all that ailed him: “Sometimes I think that I’ll find a love/ One that’s gonna change my heart/ I’ll find it in commercial appeal/ And then this heartache will get chased away.” Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga indeed went on to become Spoon’s breakout album, but Daniel’s self-fulfilling prophecy was uttered with tongue firmly planted in cheek. History reflects that each time Austin, TX’s indie darlings seem poised to upgrade to music’s luxury penthouse on Main St. USA, they insist upon downsizing.
More than two decades into their career, Spoon still defy convention. They’re a punkish, rambunctious bar band with a proclivity for aural immaculateness. Their biggest brush with fame remains (fittingly) a song titled “The Underdog.” Daniel cranks out arena-sized, hit melodies like clockwork (at least two or three per album, it seems), but prefers to conceal them in small packages. Traditional instrumentation is often cloaked in effects, split across speakers, and fractured into atomic elements. Pianos swoon then clatter, bluesy Stones-style guitar riffs surge but end up in the blender, the drums go missing then explode out at unlikely junctures.
Spoon have made virtue out of elasticity, of stretching to exceed public expectations (Kill the Moonlight, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and They Want My Soul) then snapping back to entertain more restrained inclinations (Gimme Fiction and Transference). Ninth album Hot Thoughts remains one of the latter efforts, a mystery zone of odd notions and experimentation, where studio acumen outweighs hooks, and Daniel and co. are motivated not so much by wanting success as by not fearing failure. It’s not a rest-upon-their-laurels moment — quite the opposite, in fact. Spoon continue to tinker, tease new sounds, and occasionally uncover treasures, equally testing their limits and the listener’s patience.
Electronic sounds are featured prominently on Hot Thoughts — the spidery, slow-buzz synth intro to “WhisperI’lllistentohearit” that cracks open into a full-blown rock crescendo, the booming storm cloud of keyboards that saturates “Do I Have to Talk You Into It,” the ambient beeps and backmasked vocals that inch “Pink Up” toward languid dislocation. It’s a surprising but perhaps inevitable move from a band whose twenty-year career has been a masterful appropriation of indie music’s varied facets and tastes — coarse post-punk vigor (A Series of Sneaks), Pavement-esque slacker rock (“The Way We Get By”), R&B funk (“I Turn My Camera On”), brass-inflected, blue-eyed soul (“You Got Yr Cherry Bomb”), and spacey, crystalline pop (“Inside Out”).
Flaming Lips’ producer Daniel Fridmann imparts a radiant, spacious sound on Hot Thoughts, but the album’s sonic edges and surfaces appear so lustrous that they veer toward antiseptic. On songs like “First Caress” and “I Ain’t the One,” Daniel’s disheveled ferociousness and flesh-and-blood intensity feel dampened by the album’s digital inclinations. He anticipates the backlash and digs in hard: “Everything you fear we are, we will be/ The time is gonna come/ We got our own ideas.” So be it. But the grimier you like your Spoon, the tougher Hot Thoughts can be to swallow.
The album’s best moments openly flaunt a secret that Spoon have learned over the years — that rock n’ roll hits hardest not when it emboldens, agitates, or bulldozes, but when it makes you dance. The four-on-the-floor title track dishes up wah-wah pedals, irrepressible bass, and hand claps galore, like some Rapture-esque throwback to 2003’s indie dance-punk revival. A Middle-Eastern synth riff uncoils from “Can I Sit Next To You’s” oily disco beat like a snake charmer in a nightclub, anachronistic yet hypnotizing all the same. As intrepid and impervious to opinion as most of Hot Thoughts is, Spoon still know how to command attention if they choose to.
Instrumental closer “Us” is the starkest, most avant-garde work of Spoon’s career, and it’s spell-binding — twin, haunting saxophones melt across a stereo field of gossamer synthesizers like ghosts making love. The song is reminiscent of “Subterraneans” from David Bowie’s Low, a pioneering effort in the union of the human and digital. Much like producer Tony Visconti’s innovative drum sound defined that record, percussionist Jim Eno’s work punctuates Hot Thoughts with echoey snare thwacks, tiptoeing vibraphones, and chiming steel drums. But as much as Spoon’s ninth album wants to inspire like Bowie’s masterpiece, it also resembles U2’s Pop, a conscripted, ill-suited marriage of rock and electronic textures that falls flat emotionally and accentuates the handicaps it sought to transcend.
Hot Thoughts’ flaws ensure its place as a transitional album for Spoon, but considering the band’s valleys are invariably followed by peaks, the record bodes well for a near future when combinatorial wunderkinds Daniel and Eno can tap into an arsenal of fresh sounds and ideas. Spoon’s sustained run of excellence recalls the catalogs of Neko Case, Ted Leo, and the National, indie artists who have all quietly amassed a career’s worth of critically acclaimed albums while experiencing relatively modest mainstream success. Their best albums are exceptional, and their lesser albums are, well, pretty damn good. “We come to mesmerize” Daniel pledges on Hot Thoughts, his rust-and-honey voice submerged in a river of undulating ones and zeroes. Even on his off days, he does.