It's hard out there for older bands. The music business thrives on the "hot new thing," constantly talking about up-and-coming buzz bands and pushing established acts further and further towards the fringes. There are some bands, like Radiohead or Animal Collective, who still get consistent attention and critical praise whenever they put out a new album, but for the most part end of the year lists are dominated by artists with three albums or less. Bands like The Decemberists, Belle & Sebastian, and The New Pornographers are still putting out terrific records, but they don't get the critical adulation to match that quality. It's especially rough for Spoon, who might be the most consistent band of the last two decades. They've put out so many good albums that now people take it for granted, as if to say, "oh, another good Spoon album. So"? That's the kind of attitude that lead to Transference, an otherwise great album, becoming perceived as a step-down for them when it was released in 2010.
"Rent I Pay," the first song on their new album They Want My Soul, finds the band firmly planted in their usual pocket. It's been four years since we've heard those jagged, wiry guitars and that lean rhythm section, so it feels good to have them back. But at the same time, it's easy to be disappointed with getting the "same old Spoon." Smartly, the band follows it up with "Inside Out," which is decidedly not the same old Spoon. From the little plinky piano, to the harp instrumental break, to the spacey synthesizers, it's a song that finds them embarking on completely new sonic terrain. That risk turned out to be a success, because it's a beautiful track, perhaps their most earnest, open-hearted one yet.
That one-two combination of those opening songs represents the overriding theme of the album. They Want My Soul is about the push and pull between familiar rhythms and innovations around the margins. It's an album that alternates between being loose and tightly-wound, with longer-than-usual instrumental breaks among their typical bare bones verses and choruses. "Knock Knock Knock," for example, has crisp acoustic guitars that give way to some squealing electric ones in the break. Each song offers a slightly different flavor of the band, from the Ga...-era pop of "Do You," to the bass-heavy groove of "Outlier," to the ragged ragtime cover of Ann Margaret's "I Just Don't Understand."
They Want My Soul is also the first Spoon album to feature a title track. Just as it was probably a deliberate decision for them to not have one on any of their first seven offerings, it's also most likely not an accident that this was the album on which they chose to break that trend. Better yet, it's one of the more traditionally Spoon songs on the record. New and old, new and old. It even namechecks Jonathon Fisk, the figure around which one of their best songs revolves. That choice seems to get at one of the other themes of this album: being stuck in cycles. "Do You" might sound peppy, but the lyrics in the first verse allude to some kind of unshakable addiction. Meanwhile, the chorus of "Knock Knock Knock" obliquely talks about an abusive relationship. All of a sudden, the automaton precision and unadorned nature of their sound takes on a more morose, sobering vibe in that context.
Nobody is going to argue that this is the band's best album; few eighth albums are. But it signifies that they're in a very healthy place in their career, and is a sign that they're not gradually down-sliding, seeing as this is a hair better than Transference. (Time will tell if it proves to better than 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, though it's doubtful, since that's a modern classic.) With bony songs full of great guitars and Britt Daniel's versatile vocals, They Want My Soul is by and large what you'd expect from Spoon. Clearly, that's not a bad thing.