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Transference
Spoon
Merge, 2010

Is Spoon's frontman Brit Daniel in crisis? 

Just a few weeks ago, The New York Times declared Spoon “still independent” and “still cool”: no signs of turmoil there. And on first listen, Transference certainly feels like a Spoon album—albeit a bit less flashy than the very produced Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga—so any claims about an “identity-crisis” are really unwarranted. But that doesn’t rule out other types of crisis. The lack of glitter and the general “illegibility” of many of the tracks falsely suggests a looser Spoon. In fact, even with Transference’s apparent lack of polish, it is clear the album is just as carefully thought-out as previous efforts. The origin of Transference’s raw sound is not whim or spontaneity as Britt Daniel might have us believe. Rather it is a product of the same meticulous planning that gave Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga its incredibly smooth feel. The overall effect is delightful: a precisely executed studio album disguised as a humble home-studio recording.

It is difficult to know what to make of this guise, but that hardly seems to matter. One of Spoon’s defining qualities has been their ability to successfully pull off bizarre experiments in production techniques. Consider, for instance, the Kill the Moonlight track, “Stay Don’t Go,” which somehow managed to successfully combine beat boxing with Michael Jackson falsetto without a hint of irony. “Trouble Comes Running,” one of Transference’s middle tracks, is equally daring and successful, combining low-fi and high-fi recordings in unexpected ways. When a loud snare and electric guitar suddenly explode over a quiet, grainy acoustic, the result is unexpectedly pleasurable, as the chemistry of the instrumentation is balanced perfectly. Spoon is still Spoon, no doubt, but there is something markedly different here. Britt Daniel isn’t in crisis; he’s simply addressed one.

What is this crisis? Our own attempt to describe Transference provides our clue. It is linguistic, a crisis of expression. It is the crisis that every drunken nineteen-year-old philosophy major attempts to reveal to his friends, “Can we accurately express ourselves with words?” Fortunately, Daniel doesn’t sink to this level. There is no direct reference to this type of crisis, but listening to Britt Daniel’s caterwauled words, it is clear that if he were asked, his answer would be “No.”

Primary evidence: he has stopped writing hooks.

It might be unfair to level this criticism at Transference, coming as it does on the heels of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, one of the outfit’s poppiest efforts, but while listening to the album one cannot help but notice the lack of catchy choruses. In fact, there are only three on the whole album. What can be said about the themes of an album whose most memorable moments are instrumental grooves? Not much. The new question becomes what can be felt.

Spoon has always had a knack for atmosphere: they’re one of the only bands that can effectively pull off “spooky,” a difficult vibe for rock’n’roll. Transference feels minimal, smooth, and moody, somewhere between midnight calm and 3 A.M. anxiety, but these impressions are received on the plane of sound, not meaning. Whereas previous efforts seemed unconscious to this fact, Britt seems to have finally embraced this new mode of communication.

On “I Saw the Light,” the album’s centerpiece, Britt sings the chorus with manic urgency, “I saw the light…I felt so permanently loud…I saw the light,” until a sudden unexpected change occurs: the track breaks off, only to be replaced by a near-dance beat and moody piano noodling. The listener is left bewildered. Slowly the bass drops back in, and the electric guitars return, but the vocals remain absent. For three minutes the song burns bluely along, instantly memorable and loveable, an obvious standout. The words by themselves make little sense. At the risk of trivializing Britt, one might suggest that “I Saw the Light” is a tribute to ecstatic, near-religious experiences that escape meaningful description. But if one was completely honest, the only thing that can be said is that it conveys a paradoxical calm agitation—it’s as if Britt found a way to convey complex sense detached from verbal meaning, so that every word sung brims with significance but escapes clear interpretation.

The struggle with words is felt elsewhere in the album’s careful arrangements. On “Is Love Forever?” Daniel’s vocals are clipped, sampled, and bitten off before the last syllables at the track’s end, and during the slinky “Who Makes Your Money,” the chorus is manipulated so that the vocals dissolve, sounding liquid and effervescent, on the verge of burbling away. With these experiments, Daniel blurs the line between music and poetic language, making his instruments speak and his language dance: his singing is marked with careful rhythmic punctuation, and his compositional choices resemble those of an essayist rather than a traditional rock-n-roller. Such writing frustrates traditional cognitive processing and forces the listener to receive it on a more basic level of sensual encounter. This phenomenon sets Transference apart from previous Spoon records and makes listening to it a true delight.

Transference is a remarkably solid, the kind of well-engineered album typical of Spoon. Upon each listen, the album sinks deeper into the unconscious mind, its spartan aesthetics revealing a complex constellation of moods and feelings. There’s no doubt: it could easily be a product of psychotherapy.

James Gallippi lives and writes in Austin, TX.

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