Unintentional as it may have been, and albeit with far less success, Spoon has done something similar with their new album, Transference. After a decade marked by constant praise, they made the surprising decision to record this album, their seventh, on their own, without the help of an outside producer. Even more surprising than the decision itself is the massive effect it had on the final product. It stands to reason that no one in Spoon would cite the producers they've worked with, or the studios they've recorded in, as the very essence of their band, but Transference tells a different story. It's still recognizable as a Spoon record, just not a very good one.
Or, to give them the benefit of the doubt for a second, perhaps it's just an unfinished one. There's not enough evidence to claim that any of the material here is bad, exactly, though it would almost be preferable if it were. Instead, we get a batch of songs that sound more like sketches than complete thoughts, offering mere glimpses of what they could have been had they been seen through to completion. That five of them are actually original demo versions doesn't soften this blow, it makes it worse.
The essence of a good Spoon record is the stuff that happens after the songs have been quote-unquote written. The perfectly placed tambourine at the beginning of "Cherry Bomb," the squiggly guitar thing exactly one minute into â�‚��“The Beast and Dragon, Adored," the beat-boxing in "Stay Don't Go," the thing on "Don't You Evah" that I think might be a wood-block but that I can never be sure of, even after two years of close, dedicated listening. This stuff isn't disposable—it's incredibly endearing and indicative of an auteur's obsession with detail.
For those little flourishes to stand out the way they have for the past decade, it's necessary that the recording not sound like shit, which Transference unfortunately does at times. For the duration of album-opener "Before Destruction," you sit waiting for that moment to come when the fog is lifted and the bright, crisp sounds you came for begin to shine through. They don't, though, and they don't on the next song, "Is Love Forever?" either, despite it being one of the album's more enjoyable tracks. Around three minutes and 40 seconds into "The Mystery Zone," you realize it's the first time they've let a really great three-minute song turn into something else entirely, and then it goes on for another minute and a half, before being cut off abruptly. They do something similar on, "I Saw the Light." Just less than halfway through, the song you'd been listening to drops out, and the band locks into a tight, driving groove. The drums don't sound as good as you want them to, but the interplay between the guitar and the piano grows increasingly interesting until, again, it stops abruptly just past five minutes in—no payoff, no resolution, just onto the next idea.
The high points are overshadowed, but they're there. Lead single "Written in Reverse" was released late last year, and it offered no indication whatsoever of what was to follow. The hook is huge, the vocals have sufficient bite to them, as do the squealing guitars; in retrospect, it almost feels like we were duped. "Goodnight Laura" has been getting some well-deserved attention as the band's first semi-traditional ballad, and it makes sense: cynically, you can't have a letdown if there's no precedent.
In recent interviews Britt Daniel has said that he wanted this to be a less fussed-over affair than their previous albums, and it's clear he succeeded. In the process, though, he managed to pinpoint the handful of things that have made Spoon into one of the most beloved bands in recent memory, and systematically eliminate all of them. Perhaps it's strange for a record to feel like a slap in the face, but Transference does.