Britt Daniel and his Spoon bandmates don’t want you to know just how hard they work in the studio. They’re perfectionists, constant tinkerers, and their music shows it– just not immediately. Their big breakthrough album, Kill the Moonlight, was meticulously minimal, stripping the music down to its bare essentials not haphazardly, but with precision focus. A few years later, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga gave the illusion of raw, off-the-cut rock and roll, right down to the studio chatter that popped up on several songs– which was, of course, very deliberately and methodically stitched into the fabric of the music to subvert just how carefully put-together the songs were.
With Transference, Spoon brings their old habits into a new decade, launching yet another record that sounds, at first, to be a thing of casual genius. Actually, it may be their most tossed-off, flat-out rough-sounding album since the days of Series of Sneaks; Daniel has called it an “uglier” record than the ones that came before it, which has the ring of truth to it. The ornate horns and chamberlain, glistening chords and crystalline production of Ga Ga is replaced by songs that drone, by simpler arrangements and quick-and-dirty, live-on-the-floor recordings. Opening track “Before Destruction” sets the template: A ragged acoustic guitar is strummed over the hum of studio feedback and clattering percussion, Daniel’s vocal sounding rough and lo-fi in a way that’s almost jarring after the cleaner lines of Ga Ga.
But remember: This is Spoon. Old habits die hard. Because they’re such perfectionists, no Spoon album is ever really tossed off, and because they love the studio so, every Spoon album is the sound of the band at play. And so, what initially sounds like a quick one recorded without a great deal of fuss slowly reveals itself to be another album of Spoon smoke and mirrors. Vocal distortion and other post-production effects are employed on a number of songs, perhaps to give the songs some sonic depth, perhaps just because it’s a new studio trick for a band that loves its studio tricks. And as much as a song like “Written in Reverse” sounds like vintage Spoon– all jagged edges and frayed nerves– songs like that don’t just happen; the performance might be ragged and ramshackle, but the composition is anything but.
This all means that Transference is a bit of a grower, but what Spoon album isn’t? At first it sounds like a rougher and lesser follow-up to the brilliant pop sheen of Ga Ga— which, to be fair, it is– but it opens itself up to be a fine Spoon album in its own right, not least because it illustrates all of the band’s core virtues– their resourcefulness, their ingenuity, their ability to work within a particular framework but still make albums that all sound very different, yet also very much like Spoon albums. Once again they’ve used the same Spoon tricks in service of a recording that is, in character and tone and even sound, a very different animal than anything that came before it.
They also prove once again that they’re a hell of a singles band, and could be sipping champagne with Jack White (or at least knocking back some brews with Arcade Fire) if they actually seemed to give a damn about indie rock stardom. “Written in Reverse” is the worthy first single, but “I Saw the Light” is the champion track, an outstanding song that builds tension and momentum into something a bit unusual– a Spoon epic. “Trouble Comes Running” is a Spoon rocker in the same class as “Jonathan Fisk,” and “Who Makes Your Money” channels Daniel’s Prince fixation from “I Turn My Camera On” into something slower, slinkier, subtler, and more seductive.
“Got Nuffin,” released as a stand-alone single last year, is nevertheless a welcome addition here, not just because it’s a wonderful song, but also because, thematically, it serves as the album’s climax. As frayed as Daniel’s voice is and as much jittery tension as his band packs into their music, it’s no surprise that romantic anxiety has always been on the menu, but with Transference Daniel stages a battle between the pitfalls of love and the more redemptive qualities of domesticity; “I Saw the Light” is the album’s centerpiece, an epiphany about engaging the world in all its dark wonder, and “Got Nuffin” picks up that thread at the album’s end; here, Daniel sings of a love that chases away darkness and shadows, something he carries over into the thumping disco beat of the closing number, “Nobody Gets Me But You,” a song that marries the twin strands of alienation and belonging: “No one else remembers my name/ Just those parts that I’ve played/ Nobody gets me but you.”
It’s a new wrinkle in the carefully-pressed fabric of Spoon; a wink, a sly surprise that awaits only patient listeners. In other words, it’s another Spoon trick, and it’s a great one. Transference is full of those, which is why it’s a vital reminder of just how lucky we are to have this band. Of course, it’s also a retreat from the fame they seemed so very close to achieving with the financial success of Ga Ga, but so what? As with everything else Spoon does, I’m sure it’s all part of the plan.