“Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren’t any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true.”
– Karen “Kay” Eiffel, Stranger Than Fiction
First, some exposition: Spoon is my favorite aught-era “indie” “rock” band. In 2005, I was 13 and Spoon stuck a knife in my system with Gimme Fiction, knocking my gears off of their preset paths, sending them into ever-shifting cycles; its sinewy, reductionist rock structures and demythologizing lyrics confronted my normative definition of “good” songwriting and simultaneously reinforced those qualities that made it an exciting and novel-sounding listening experience for me (its terseness, its funkiness, its understated dynamic and tonal shifts, its reptilian sound structures, its discreetly picturesque lyrics). From there, I worked backward, immersing myself in Kill the Moonlight’s profane peeled-back pop and Girls Can Tell’s weird ecstatic moments of rock & roll rupture (it has since become my favorite Spoon album and a polished gem in my collection alongside Jim O’Rourke’s Insignificance and The Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2).
However, through my self-constructed, past-gazing lens, Spoon’s music has always been a Bavarian sugar cookie: it’s easily digestible yet has a grainy quality; it’s a reliable fallback yet consistently satiates; it’s smooth and nearly homogenous yet sticks long after it’s consumed. But can rock music really save our lives? If They Want My Soul’s lyrics (and more subtly, its sonic choices) provide any insight into Spoon’s hypothetical meditations on this legendary question, I can only assume that they’d answer negatively. To save means to settle, and Spoon, even in their consistency, never settle for anything.
They Want My Soul starts with driving studio drums on “Rent I Pay,” ushering in a cavalcade of taut guitar blitzes from both channels, rocketing augmented chords off of each other like pinballs. It seems like a big fat rock gesture for a big fat “comeback” album (I don’t care for Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga or Transference). But then things start getting weird. “I Just Don’t” is an all-out, static-spitting jam for shrapnel guitars, skittery drums, and pounding piano that belies its otherwise standard blues structure. “Knock Knock Knock” starts with strumbly acoustic guitars before it disrupts its own groove with gravity-defying crescendos and suffocating cut-offs, abysmal piano dirges, decimated drum fills, and Sonic Youth-esque pangs of feedback. Almost every song here defies its own set expectations, and along with their often paranoid lyrics — “I don’t want nothing they could say to convince me” (“Knock Knock Knock”), “Card sharks and street preachers want my soul” (“They Want My Soul”), “Well you call me your baby/ When you’re holding my hand/ But the way that you hurt me/ I just don’t understand” (“I Just Don’t Understand”), these expressions explicate that They Want My Soul may just be Spoon’s most aggressive, confrontational, and visceral record yet.
And so, They Want My Soul teems with that kinetic energy that once ignited and immolated my worldview, and musically it includes some of Spoon’s most experimental and exploratory textures, yet it doesn’t feel like a milestone for me. What is reassuring and frankly impressive, however, is that for somebody who just turned 13, this could be that album that fries those stubborn rockist neural pathways or serves as a new locus of contestation about rock & roll’s mythology.
Maybe it was a completely silly and misleading decision, then, to start with a movie quote about cookies saving lives (yeah, it was kind of a straw man anyway), as Spoon’s nuances, anomalies, and subtleties don’t just “save” lives, but shape them in weird, unexpected ways. And as for stubbornness, Girls Can Tell will probably always be my favorite, but with They Want My Soul, Spoon makes a compelling argument that maybe all of this nostalgia for origins is bullshit. Exciting things are still happening amidst routine and constancy, and sometimes submitting isn’t settling or getting saved; it’s letting yourself get moved against all odds. And that may be rock & roll’s only remaining saving grace, one that Spoon continues upholding and confronting with every album.