Spoon – Transference

There’s good news and bad news. First, the good: Transference, Spoon’s latest album proper in two and a half years, isn’t going to lose them any fans. The bad: it probably isn’t gonna win them many new ones, either. Nope, it isn’t as good as Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, nor as catchy. The kneejerk reaction is to label Transference “a grower” — that indelible term critics seem to love so much — and that’s about as apt a basic description as you’ll find. There are only a couple tunes here with relatively catchy hooks, and one of them you might have heard already (“Got Nuffin” was released with three other experimental tracks on an EP last year). The others are more complex, or at least more wandering. A fellow critic sarcastically claimed this to be Spoon’s Kid A, an idea which is both ridiculous and completely understandable once you’ve listened.

Ga 5x was generally considered Spoon’s biggest mainstream breakthrough, and a cynic might view what they are doing here as a deliberate step backward. They’re not letting themselves succumb quite so easily to fame — they’re struggling against it. And a less talented group might let that struggle affect the strength of their music, but Transference, for the most part, is still very much a Spoon album.

The interesting thing about Spoon, in fact, is that they can make meandering seem purposeful. “Mystery Zone,” one of the album’s lesser tracks, opens with a fairly tongue-in-cheek Beatles reference and searches for a rhyme or reason, but Britt Daniel’s crackling, sandpaper croon seemingly lends direction. Even when the song appears to have no aim, disregarding it merely as filler seems somehow inappropriate.

If “Mystery Zone” sounds like a Beatles song, “Who Makes Your Money” looks like one. But musically it’s more Prince than Lennon, with Daniel adapting a higher pitch and letting out a few effeminate “Oohs” and “Aahs” that wouldn’t be out of place on Sign ‘O’ the Times. “Written In Reverse” is the other catchy song on the album, sounding more than anything else like classic Spoon; mixing Motown and bar lounge as Daniel’s tormented voice wails: All I know is all I know. And, like those found on some of Spoon’s better tracks, the lyrics linger because of how variously they can be interpreted.

Transference isn’t easy to grade, frankly, because it’s quite tempting to contrast it against the band’s last two albums, which were high watermarks in their career. Taken on its own merits, it’s a fine album — perhaps the simplest complaint that can be lodged against Transference is that it’s the sound of a great band taking a step backward when they should ideally be leaping ahead. After all, as Daniel opines, they’ve got nuffin’ to lose — but, then again, maybe that same opportunity is precisely what allowed them to regress…and, all things considered, there could be larger faults.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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