Here is a track-by-track first impression. Listen for yourself here.
1. Before Destruction – A keyboard that sounds like something lifted from Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan anchors the beginning of this track, with that giving way to rather lo-fi vocals from Britt Daniel as the song builds (or rather, deconstructs). This sounds like a demo that was used as the base of a finished track. Given Daniel’s acumen and the fact that the band produced itself for the first time here, that’s entirely possible. It’s a slightly odd opening track, because it isn’t immediately gripping, but as a scene setter, it may very well be the perfect introduction. Some nice backing vocal effects as the song progresses add some beneficial texture. I may be humming this a couple of weeks from now after a few spins, but for now I’ll file it in the “grower” category.
2. Is Love Forever – Ah, much more Spoon-like, with Daniel’s stabbing guitar chords driving things from the get-go. A slightly out-of-sync doubled vocal track gives this a spacey, out of focus vibe. I keep waiting for the drums to fully kick in and propel the song into a more dynamic chorus, but so far, no go. Again, not much to latch onto here. It’ll click eventually, but Daniel’s typical sticky melodies are absent here.
3. The Mystery Zone – Even more Spoonesque. If you seek a first single, this could suffice. The beat is more traditional, the melody more conventional and the sound more fleshed out. This could easily appear on any of the band’s last three albums, though it does hark back more specifically to Kill the Moonlight. That’s the dilemma, however; because this sounds most familiar, it has the most appeal now yet will probably be one of the tracks that wearies most readily. There’s a nice long unadorned Jim Eno drumbeat that would make a nice sample for a future rap single. Heads up, Kanye.
4. Who Makes Your Money – This is a strange one with an odd little keyboard line driving it before Daniel starts singing in a restrained, almost pained way: “Japanese John, his slight face fur/Still just as confused, still just as sure.” The chorus finds Daniel singing the title in a phased way that brings to mind the old hit “Crimson and Clover.” Then, about half way through, a slight guitar riff pushes the song, both rhythmically and sonically before fading to let the keyboard figure back to the surface. After a couple of albums where Spoon added layers back to its sound after the spartan Kill the Moonlight, this feels like an about-face back toward the stripped-down aesthetic.
5. Written in Reverse – The first song made available as a stream (not counting “Got Nuffin,” which anchored an EP last year) has a bit of a Paul McCartney vibe, with the 4/4 drums and a pounding piano as a complementary rhythm instrument. It, too, recalls past Spoon albums, but this time out it’s Girls Can Tell, the album that found the band’s reach and grasp aligning to produce a clutch of wonderfully off-kilter pop songs. Daniel sings with conviction here while the guitars slash and dive. It has a nice false ending, too.
6. I Saw the Light – The tempo doesn’t shift much between these two tracks, with the beginning of “I Saw the Light” almost feeling like an extension of “Written in Reverse.” Then, about halfway through. The song morphs into a double-time instrumental propelled by piano and bass. Guitars again slash through as the song builds, but it never feels like a part of the same song.
7. Trouble Comes Running – Lowest of the lo-fi, at least for the first few second, with a creaky strum replaced by full-on rock. Daniel sings what sounds like “I was in a functional way, I had my brown sound jacket, queen of call collect on my arm.” While the backing continues to sound lo-fi, as if cut on a four-track, the vocals and guitars sound hi-fi, giving them prominence in the speakers. The song is a kick, with some nice mid-60s Who backing vocals on the chorus and a generally ramshackle stumble of an arrangement.
8. Goodnight Laura – If memory serves, the first true Spoon ballad. Over nothing more than a piano, Daniel sings what amounts to a lullaby. There is nothing crafty or obtuse about the lyric; it’s simply telling Laura, whoever she may be, that everything will be all right and that it’s OK to go to sleep. A sweet song that shows more range than Daniel has revealed previously.
9. Out Go the Lights – A bit of normalcy after some more challenging (by mainstream standards, of course) tunes. This is the most straight-forward song on the album, though it is still spare and, thanks to its mid-tempo beat, will rely on multiple listens to reveal its charms. Daniel seems to be doing more with backing vocals on this album, and the oohs and ahhs that buttress his main vocal here are a good example of their effective use. This staggers to a close more than ends, with instruments falling away to leave only Eno’s drums to carry things to the conclusion.
10. Got Nuffin – This is the oldest track here, and it fits well with the album. Given Spoon’s penchant for non-LP releases, I’d have preferred leaving it to its namesake EP to make way for another new song here, but it does give the album a needed boost of energy in the penultimate spot. Along with “The Mystery Zone,” this is the most Spoon-like track on the album, a propulsive rocker with a solid hook and well-placed guitar lines. It’s also the only track that makes use of Daniel’s unique spelling, with past song titles like “Don’t You Evah” and “Rhthm & Soul” earning the scorn of English teachers.
11. Nobody Gets Me But You – The burbling bass and drum machine make this sound like an outtake from a 1980s DeBarge record, but Daniel clearly makes the song his own in short order. Could this be a paean to the listener: “No one else gets what I’m doing,” he sings. Of course, given the band’s rising profile and growing commercial footprint, that’s not such an exclusive club. This is a strange closer, but, like much of the album, that obtuse nature makes me want to listen again to figure out all of the angles, and that’s not a bad trait for an album to possess.
All told, this isn’t the album I expected from Spoon, nor is it necessarily the one I wanted. But Spoon has succeeded and thrived precisely by delivering the unexpected, and Transference will likely be no different. If this feels like a retrenchment of sorts, it’s at least a return to a time when Daniel and his band found very fertile ground to explore. While certain tracks c
ould be considered growers, the entire album feels that way when one takes a step back. While “The Mystery Zone” and “Got Nuffin” offer immediate rewards, tracks like “Who Makes Your Money” and “Nobody Gets Me But You” surely will offer the highest yields over the long term. Transference is a good record that, with enough dedicated listening, promises to be a great one.