Dressed like one of Gatsby’s socialites, an actress paid to flirt with me asked what I was cleansing this particular evening. “My soul” seemed an obvious answer. She looked surprised. I admit, it was a little ambitious for a Spoon concert.
The Austin rockers celebrated the release of their eighth album, They Want My Soul (out this week on Loma Vista), Sunday night with a secret show at the McKittrick Hotel, home of the create-your-own-creepy-adventure Macbeth production Sleep No More. Some bands are built for these kinds of gimmicks — many of Spoon’s more commercially successful peers thrive on them. An album cycle for Arcade Fire would not be complete without secret shows at warehouses and salsa clubs, cryptic graffiti teasers in major cities worldwide, even papier mâché heads worn by each band member (because really, isn’t gauche for the one of the biggest bands on the planet to show their faces?). Vampire Weekend took out an ad in the “Notices and Lost & Found” section of The New York Times to announce last year’s Modern Vampires of the City. While promoting 2011’s El Camino, The Black Keys pretended to be hawking a beat-up minivan — the album’s namesake model — with newspaper ads, a phone line, and a website called WannaBuyAVan.com. Entertaining? Definitely. Exhausting? A little.
“It’s not like we ever had some kind of gimmick,” Spoon frontman Britt Daniel told The Guardian upon the release of 2010’s Transference. “The White Stripes make great music but have a great gimmick – the two-piece line-up, the red-and-white style, the rumors. [..] Being flash – I’ve never really gotten that. It’s a little embarrassing for me.”
The biggest controversy ever dusted up by Spoon was a pair of novelty songs aimed at Ron Lafitte, the Elektra A&R exec who’d signed and subsequently did little to help the band before they were dropped in 1998. But “The Agony of Lafitte” and “Lafitte Don’t Fail Me Now” are footnotes in today’s Spoon story… if there even is such a story. Mythologies are not made by major-label beef more than a decade removed. That seems to be the preferred mode for a group of middle-aged musicians known for their button-down collections.
However, They Want My Soul has a few tricks up its oxford sleeve. Sunday’s show, thrown with Myspace, was a stunt inside a stunt: the culmination of Spoon “mystery mailers” in which they have sent gifts — ranging from shirts to guitar pedals that play unreleased album cuts — to unsuspecting fans. Playing cards and golden rings were given out at random before the performance, which commenced with a lounge singer covering “I Just Don’t Understand,” off the new album, before being whisked away by men in hooded velvet robes. Back in May, opening track “Rent I Pay” was teased cryptically on social media as “R.I.P.” — a notion that led some to believe that Spoon were either breaking up or releasing a new album after four years. The latter was confirmed with an NPR interview two months ago, at which point the guys explained the hiatus in terms anyone could understand: they were tired. Has any band ever seemed so simple?
Despite this recent interest in mild stuntin’ (I’d give it a four on the artist gimmick scale), Spoon’s music has very little to hide behind — and it doesn’t need to. Every album they’ve released since the turn of the century has worked off the same sound with neither major revisions nor the elaborate narratives that accompany musical changes in direction. Their first two albums, 1998’s A Series of Sneaks and 1996’s Telephono, showed a noisier band with rougher edges: much less synth and piano, fewer pop hooks and choruses, fuzzy production.
I can see how Spoon would be a frustrating band for people who dislike what they do. They never change, yet they get tons of press for it. They’re infuriatingly cool without ever trying too hard. They’re easy to get into but hard to connect with emotionally (songs about fitted shirts, cigarette cases, and cameras can come off that way at first glance). But as far as their specific brand of rock ‘n’ roll — clever but not so clever that you can’t shake your ass to it —They Want My Soul is right up there with 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the album that perfected Spoon’s formula. The album expands in subtle ways, from the dreamy psychedelics of “Inside Out” and “Outlier” (perhaps thanks to co-producer Dave Fridmann, Flaming Lips and MGMT collaborator) to philosophical anthems that border on earworms (“Do You,” “They Want My Soul,” “Let Me Be Mine”).
On Sunday night, there were big screams for new and old songs alike. The fun in a Spoon show is that it feels like a greatest-hits set, except Spoon’s never scored a proper hit (TV synchs don’t count). The crowd stirs as much for “Don’t Make Me a Target” as “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” or even “Got Nuffin.” Everyone has a different favorite Spoon album. With every new one comes the realization that a decade-plus of consistency, plus the bare minimum of gimmicks, is a low-key big deal. Does it cleanse my soul? No. But it feels damn good to dance.