When Britt Daniel recently defined Spoon’s sound as “indefinable” in an interview with Texas Monthly, he had a point. Two decades and eight albums in, the Austin band offers a fairly traditional rock lineup and an easily recognizable aesthetic, but for every song that sounds like Billy Joel or Prince, there’s one that brings to mind Wire or Lee “Scratch” Perry. Adventurous yet minimalist, urgent but aloof, Spoon are big-tent and arty at once, all contrasts and mismatched edges. The group’s best-selling album, 2007′s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, doesn’t even make it past track two before there’s a drumless song with backwards keyboards.
They Want My Soul, Spoon’s most generous album so far and effectively a postmodern refinement of all that came before, has plenty of definitively “Spoon” moments. The title track — remarkably, the first in Spoon’s catalog — bristles with their trademark recalcitrance (the lyrics even reference the brutish title character from “Jonathan Fisk,” off of 2002′s Kill the Moonlight). Crisp drums, crunchy guitars, raspily melodic vocal hooks that go “on and on and on”: The Spoon sound is all here. But the effects-pedal squalls, the painterly whistles, acoustic strums and orchestral Psycho-drama of “Knock Knock Knock,” are reminders of producer Dave Fridmann’s involvement. And the synth-pop romantic grandeur of finale “New York Kiss” drives home that Alex Fischel, of Daniel’s non-Spoon band Divine Fits, has joined on keys. The Spoon sound is an unstable proposition.
Ambivalence lurks in the noir-ish shadows of David Bowie-grooving “Rainy Taxi” and insistently questioning “Do You.” Space-station saloon waltz “I Just Don’t Understand,” an Ann-Margret cover, establishes a lineage with the Beatles, who did the same song 50-plus years ago, but it also adds new levels of terse unpredictability. Even the sneering, gauntlet-throwing mention of “when you walked out of Garden State,” amid the cosmopolitan cosmic disco of “Outlier,” is sphinx-like, inscrutable. But it’s the stunning “Inside Out,” with its unexpected harp and meditative chill, that reveals what’s most quintessentially Spoon: a sense of self-confidence as big as the Ritz. It’s knowing they can’t always get what they want, then consistently giving them what they need.