Even the best bands need to take a step back sometimes. When Spoon released their seventh album, Transference, in 2010, the sound of the record—wiry, caustic, self-produced and stripped down to expose its jagged edges—stood, immediately, in stark contrast to the slightly slicker and more soulful feel of the band's previous two albums, 2005's Gimme Fiction and 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.
Those two earlier records were easier to love, as evident by the breakthrough success of singles like "Sister Jack," "I Turn My Camera On" and "The Underdog." Transference, on the other hand, is more of a challenge. It's like trying to hug the Tin Man in a lightning storm.
As it turns out, that album was a challenge for its makers, too.
"We couldn't reproduce [Transference] in a way that we liked," Spoon founder and frontman Britt Daniel says in a telephone interview.
"You do tend to be more excited about new material because it's a new experience. The songs are fresh. And that one, it was a different kind of record. It was more of a headphones record and more of a slightly, indulgently difficult record."
Spoon plays June 2 at The Observatory North Park
The battle against Transference had long-ranging effects on Spoon. At the end of the album's touring cycle, the Austin-based band, which had been releasing albums and touring consistently since the mid-1990s, was "burnt out," according to Daniel, and agreed to take a significant break. During that time off, Daniel formed a new band called Divine Fits with his friend Dan Boeckner (of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs) and went to work reacquainting himself with the simple joys of being in a rock n' roll band.
When it was time to return to Spoon— and returning to Spoon was never in doubt, Daniel says—he brought with him some old lessons he'd uncovered in Divine Fits' new light.
"The biggest thing I got was, Shit, it's fun putting together a band and playing with people that you love and this is the way it should feel.'" Daniel says. "I knew I was going to come back to Spoonbut when I did, I thought, Hey, y'know, guys, look: I've seen this. Everybody can get on stage and it can be fun. Why should we do it any other way?'"
The "lonely" (Daniel's word) process of self-producing Transference also led to the decision to work with two big name producers for its follow-up, They Want My Soul, which Spoon released last year through Loma Vista Recordings after putting out five albums on venerable indie label Merge Records. Joe Chiccarelli, known for his work with the White Stripes, My Morning Jacket and The Shins, among others, produced half the album, and longtime Flaming Lips associate Dave Fridmann produced the other half and mixed the whole thing.
The two men brought not only ears and knob-twiddling know-how to the creation of They Want My Soul, they also brought their own ideas to the process, which pushed Spoon in new directions and gave the album a more fully developed feel, Daniel says.
"I like it when a couple different aesthetics come together. I feel like if you can make something work for both of those aesthetics, then usually it's going to be better than just one," he says. "That kind of collaboration, I think, is good for art in general."
Daniel calls the songs on They Want My Soul "a bit more universal" and it's easy to hear what he's talking about. The lead track, "Rent I Pay," is a classic Spoon rumbler, powered by hyper-rhythmic guitar riffs and pockmarked with noisy doodads. "Inside Out" is a lush, well-lit pop strut built atop a rubbery bass line and a hip-hop beat. "Rainy Taxi" and "Do You" bring back some of the swagger and sinewy soul that permeated Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.
Later in the album, the title track finds Daniel setting one of his most engaging melodies against a sea of razor-sharp guitar jabs. And the band explores a grimy disco vibe on the pulsating "Outlier," a song that Daniel's bandmates wrote while he was wrapping up Divine Fits obligations—a method that had never produced a song before, and one that Daniel hopes to revisit.
"I think they were actually somewhat skeptical when I asked them to work on songs without me, because I think I've made that request before," he says. "But I really love that track and I know it's something I would not have been able to come up with on my own. It's another example of the combining of aesthetics."
As a whole, They Want My Soul features all of the band's peculiarities and bizarro pop savvy stretched tightly across 10 songs and 37 minutes. In other words, it's unmistakably a Spoon record —one with an extroverted personality spurred, at least in part, by its prickly predecessor.
"I wanted to do (an album) that would be fun to go out and play and tour on for a year," Daniel says. "There's a lot I like about good old-fashioned radio songs and I wanted to make some songs like that. I wanted them to be the kind of songs that invite people in."