The Abundance of Your House: Spoon’s Transference

By Daniel Garrett

Spoon, Transference
Songs by Britt Daniel
Produced by Britt Daniel and Jim Eno
Merge, 2010

“Before destruction, a man’s heart is haughty” is the first line on the album Transference by the band Spoon, which consists of Rob Pope, Eric Harvey, Jim Eno, and Britt Daniel. The composition “Before Destruction” has a jangly guitar and thumping drum that create the rhythm ridden by the jazz-like (start-and-stop; offhand) vocal, masculine in its directness but not tough. It is a sound shaped by craft, but infused with emotion and energy. The long-touring musical group Spoon has grown a loyal audience that appreciates its smart, fun songs; and it has won the respect of critics for its craft and dedication. Spoon’s ability to satisfy audience and critics may be rooted in the fact that the tastes of the band are broad, including as it does Britt Daniel’s liking of the Beatles, Bee Gees, the Cure, and the Kinks, and Jim Eno’s admiring R.E.M., the Smiths, and U2. Spoon’s Transference, a collection of songs marked by an earthiness that does not preclude experiment, but rather makes its implicit vision more vital, is an album that was preceded by Series of Sneaks (1998), Kill the Moonlight (2002), Gimme Fiction (2005), and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007); and Transference is the band’s seventh album. On some of the group’s songs, such as “Written in Reverse,” the listener discerns the impudence of the Rolling Stones and the imaginative quirkiness of the Talking Heads. The musicians in Spoon believe it is possible to be honest, and do work that has a classical dimension and have it be appreciated. Singer-songwriter Britt Daniel’s commitment to making the sound he hears in his head, something he and Jim Eno (drummer), Eric Harvey (keyboards), and Rob Pope (bass) have acknowledged, is becoming something of a legend.

“Is Love Forever?” is a song that asks not only whether love lasts but what love is, and whether what the narrator has called love was merely instinct, animal behavior. The singer’s voice is stuttering, over a simple beat that could be that of a child banging on a box or a ritual drone; and the structure of the song changes, its rhythm more persistent, and the singer’s attitude is more demanding. The lyrics suggest that a response rooted in instinct would be of a lower, more reflexive, order. Yet, in a world that seems thoroughly domesticated—bureaucratic, controlled, politically correct—instinct and passion can become matters of fetish, romanticized, strange, sought; and anger and rebellion can seem heroic, even when they are not tied to ideals, especially then. In the attitude and sound of some rock music, rough and roguish passion has been an emblem of freedom, of individuality. In “Is Love Forever?” it is possible that the conscious thought, as expressed by the lyrics, is going one way, and the feeling of the song, as expressed by the singer’s tone and the force and instrumentation of the music, is going another. Does that maintain contradiction, or make possible reconciliation and resolution?

“Mystery Zone” is allusive, confident, goofy, sensuous. “What gets him going off down that road? It’s the thing he don’t understand, the mystery zone,” sings Britt Daniel, who studied film as well as television and radio and is good at creating atmospheric scenes. The mystery zone is a place of distance, of imagination and possibility, of desire for excitement, gratified desire, a place of strangeness, of the unknown. You weren’t there but you were. Amid the increasing musical momentum, Britt Daniel sometimes rushes his words and issues little howls and hums. It is an easily likable song—its rhythm makes it so, but the lyrics entertain the mind too. The vision of an artist often contains an idea or image that seems to illuminate and organize the mind, if not the world, of the artist, and that partly explains the obsession of artists; their own visions promise fulfillment or peace; and it would be rather ingenious if the center of Britt Daniel’s vision is mystery rather than revelation, how like life that is: “All of the people you used to run into but never do now. They took off for the mystery zone.”

Britt Daniel begins “Who Makes Your Money” in a quiet murmuring voice, but as the composition continues—“Who Makes Your Money” seems to be about the world of contracts and services, of paid employment with its abdication of personal responsibility and adherence to public rules—his voice’s exultations seem resonant with both pain and sex. The composition, rock music with the implication of other genres, is both playful and moodily suggestive (I think a little of Jeff Buckley and Prince). There is a light, round vibration—a pulsating beat—beneath the voice; and, with the resonance of the unsaid, the song is like an interrogation occurring in a dream world. The strutting composition “Written in Reverse” willfully attempts paradoxes—such as, “I wanna show you how I love you but there’s nothing there. I’m not standing here”—and even insult—“some people are so easily shuffled and dealt”—and it is “Written in Reverse,” another easily seductive song, that for me evokes the Rolling Stones and the Talking Heads, with its puckish voice and forceful rhythm, and the suggestion that it is panic—a screaming torment—at the root of it. The musicians in Spoon, which began in the early 1990s and has southern (Texas and North Carolina) roots though its central figure Britt Daniel has been residing recently in Oregon, have mastered their musical inheritance—which is international, and they know it.

“I Saw the Light” is made up of different parts, of differing musical patterns and tones, and it begins downbeat, heavy, but becomes lighter and possibly more sinister, and changes yet again. It is fascinating that the band creates a communication that seems both public and private—as that is the way much communication actually is in daily life. In “I Saw the Light,” the narrator admits, “I sell the world unto the world. It asks me back again. It calls me Love and holds me tight. It peels off them ties that bind me”; and that is shrewd awareness, and could be the words of any successful artist, whose career is likely to involve as much calculation as truth, and adoration as well as alienation from one’s beginnings.

“Trouble’s where the kicks are” is one of the observations in “Trouble Comes Running,” a tune that reminds me of the band the Specials and makes the phrase “functional way” sound like “feng shui,” but it is a song—uptempo guitar and drumming—without artificial gloss. Britt Daniel can sound like an unusually intelligent young man who has been slumming for years—as if he just woke up in the early afternoon, lit a cigarette and opened a beer before throwing together a sandwich for breakfast; familiar and unsettling for the mundane craziness, the casual sexiness. “Trouble Comes Running” is followed by the voice-and-piano ballad “Goodnight Laura,” in which the listener hears the traditional aspects of the vocal art without encountering cliché, and then the beautiful bass lines in “Out Go the Lights” and the punky “Got Nuffin.” In “Out Go the Lights,” someone appears in disguise, looking good but dangerous: and, “You became like that on which your heart was fixed.” The composition “Got Nuffin” could be about fellowship among musicians: “And I got nothing to lose but darkness and shadows.” There is a length and looseness to some of the songs that push them beyond the borders of expectation and formula. The last song on the album, “Nobody Gets Me But You,” has piano notes that fan out, increasing in volume, and ringing percussion; and the song sounds like the expression of someone at once cool, dopey, flirtatious, and spoiled, a theatrical personality—a personality able to make its own concerns and travails dramatic, compelling. Spoon has become one of the most engaging and significant bands of its era; and Spoon’s Transference, a very good album, is one informed by loneliness—and makes loneliness less damning, more understandable, the beginning of a true relationship.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel admires classic and modern literature and philosophy, and likes painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food, jazz, rock, and world music; and for years he has been bored by bourgeois morality, identity politics, and contrived radical gestures. “Being an artist is a perilous thing: you can sacrifice to create something beautiful and brilliant but be made to feel ashamed and guilty if it does not make money. It is an irony that rich men know that if they do not attach themselves to art, architecture, medicine, or social projects as patrons, no one will remember their names after death. Listening to certain musicians reminds one of the true power of art, the cultivation of imagination, passion, and thought,” says Garrett, who originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth. ( Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com )

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