More so than any other nuts and bolts rock ‘n roll band, Spoon is at their best in the studio. As a live act, Spoon is perfectly capable, but all of the little quirks and tricks that permeate Spoon albums are difficult to recreate on stage as a four-piece. It’s not a devastating loss. Obviously, those moments are not the entirety of Spoon’s appeal, nor a significant percentage of it, but it’s enough to make the prospect of seeing Spoon almost secondary to listening to their albums through a good set of speakers.
So while it is certainly enjoyable to see Spoon live from time to time, the big payoff of being a Spoon fan comes when they release a new album. And they’ve certainly been good to us so far; the streak of Girls Can Tell, Kill the Moonlight, Gimme Fiction, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is one of the more enviable and consistently excellent runs in modern rock. But that just makes it all the more devastating when a Spoon album arrives that does not meet the quality level they have previously established.
On first listen, Transference appears to be the disappointing album that Spoon fans prayed would never arrive yet seemed inevitable. At the very least, Spoon appears to be spinning its wheels. There’s not a lot on Transference that strikes the listener as new and divine inspiration for Britt Daniel and Co. But repeated listens reveal a strong and impressive album, one that, if it’s not a standout in the Spoon catalog, holds its own admirably.
For starters, there are any number of quality entries into the taut, nervy, and swaggering indie rock category that Spoon favor so often and so well. “The Mystery Zone” and “Written in Reverse” leap to mind immediately. Your appreciation of these songs will be directly attributable to whether or not you believe Spoon has done this type of thing too frequently. I’m squarely in the camp that cannot get enough of this sort of act. Daniels simply has a gift for repeating his successes in fresh new ways.
Then there are those little moments that reiterate the point made in paragraph one; that Spoon is a brilliant studio band. The choices they make could so easily appear purposeless in the hands of a lesser band, but that’s just what makes Spoon such a singular act. Throw in a ton of echo on the chorus of “Is Love Forever?” only to dramatically swipe it away? Sure, why not? Maybe it represents the suddenness of Daniels’ ostensibly recent heartbreak, or maybe it just sounds really fucking cool. How about a chaotic, rapidly ascending piano line appearing at random intervals into the otherwise excellently rigid strut of “Nobody Gets Me But You”? Of course, and I won’t even pretend to have a pretentious explanation for that one. It’s just awesome.
However, there are reasons that Transference doesn’t reach the heights of Kill the Moonlight or Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, though they are petty reasons. To begin with, the album lacks the standout killer track that makes Spoon fans spasmodic with rage at their lack of mainstream success; no “That’s The Way We Get By,” nor “I Turn My Camera On,” nor “The Underdog”. Of course, there’s something to be said for the baseline quality of the material on Transference, but quality control has never been a problem with Spoon before, and they still managed to pull at least one stone-cold classic out for each album. “Who Makes Your Money,” maybe the album’s best song, is a little too calm to make any waves, even when considering that fantastic mid-song intersection of harmonizing guitars.
However, a great deal of the complaints about Transference can be alleviated with a little close attention. “Goodnight Laura” might strike some as an overly straightforward piano ballad, but it’s meant to taken as a sort of off-the-cuff moment of guileless sentimentality. “Out Go the Lights” is initially fairly dull, but Daniels’ palpable despair inevitably becomes surprisingly endearing, and little hooks start to appear. For me, every new Spoon album starts off in my opinion as run-of-the-mill, and eventually grows into these nagging obsessions filled with wonderful moments, both undeniably poppy and brilliantly esoteric, that I cannot believe I missed the first time. Even if I have to use more qualifiers than I have previously when describing Spoon albums, that same fascination has popped up again with Transference.