Bands often struggle to maintain a balance between commercial success and artistic merit. Spoon, a four-piece band from Austin, Texas, has grappled with this difficulty continuously throughout its 15-year career. The band has long been hailed as a forerunner of the indie-rock scene, creating several critically acclaimed albums and establishing a loyal fan base. But some of the band’s songs — “The Underdog” and “The Way We Get By,” among others — have leaked into mainstream pop culture, appearing in several movies including 17 Again and television shows like The O.C. After nearly a decade of building on their past success, Spoon found itself at a crossroads familiar to talented bands everywhere.
With Tuesday’s release of Transference, the band’s fifth full-length album with independent Merge Records, Spoon demonstrated its pointed indifference to the allure of commercial success, trading the formula of well-produced, complex melodies behind 2007’s enormously successful Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga for an album defined by spare, minimalist tracks that lack the mass appeal of the previous release. Much of the record suggests the same sense of slow-moving, almost lazy apathy.
Many of the songs on the final version of Transference are actually demo recordings, and the production quality shows. While many of the group’s most successful songs from previous albums included discernible, memorable melodies and a variety of instruments — listen for the horn section in “The Underdog,” for instance — most of the songs on Transference lack any additional instrumentation besides drums, keyboard, guitar and bass.
The first few songs, “Before Destruction,” “Is Love Forever?” and the nearly five-minute-long “The Mystery Zone” are slow-paced tracks that begin with a certain rhythm and groove and rarely deviate from such throughout the rest of the song. Lead singer Britt Daniel often repeats a certain phrase or string of lyrics (usually the name of the title track) as the rhythm continues in the background, a form of repetition typical of Spoon songs. There’s no question that these songs can easily transfix listeners and leave them begging for more, but, when “The Mystery Zone” strangely and abruptly cuts off in the middle of a groove at the 4:59 mark, it only proves that the song wasn’t heading toward any interesting change in style or pace in the first place. After the track randomly ends, it only dives into the equally slow-paced, repetitive and relaxed groove of “Who Makes Your Money.”
By no means does the album’s relaxed pace and stripped-down feel detract from its overall quality. On the contrary, the fact that Spoon is able to produce unique and enjoyable songs without the use of fine-tuned production techniques demonstrates Spoon’s talent and ability as a band.
On the ballad “Goodnight Laura,” lead vocalist Daniel sings quietly over a piano throughout the entire song, creating the album’s most drastically minimalist track. Daniel’s voice, however, has always sounded somewhat slow and lazy — one of Spoon’s most distinctive characteristics — so the simplicity of pared-down tracks like “Goodnight Laura” is different in a good way, though not entirely unexpected.
“Written In Reverse” is Transference’s first single and — not surprisingly — the most radio-friendly track on the album. During the song, piano and electric guitars clash and collide over a powerful drumbeat as Daniel trades his usual slow singing for loud, passionate belting and screaming.
Similar to a novel that is boring throughout the first few chapters, it takes a few songs before Transference truly kicks into gear and picks up intensity and complexity. “I Saw the Light” draws upon the energy of “Written in Reverse,” resulting in another fast-paced, complex track. “Got Nuffin,” a similarly upbeat song, has already been used on the NBC comedy Chuck, which may be the band’s half-hearted attempt at maintaining its commercial success.
Other than those three, the album maintains its relaxed, slow pace. It almost seems as if the band is purposefully attempting to detach itself from the success of previous albums and singles, as the production quality is intentionally less polished and the memorable melodies are absent for a reason. In the process of negotiating the precarious balance between commercial success and artistic merit, Transference ultimately lands Spoon somewhere in the middle. The artistic quality is there and the commercial appeal is perhaps purposefully avoided, but only time will tell whether or not the band’s enormous audience will be able to digest the differences of Transference. Either way, Spoon has once again demonstrated its ability to craft an enjoyable album comprised of a unique group of songs.