Spoon has a reputation for arty minimalism. Its pithy albums suggest a cool remove, a distaste for wasted notes or wasted emotions.
"They Want My Soul" (Loma Vista), the quintet's eighth studio album and first in four years, is no exception — its 10 songs clock in at under 38 minutes. But singer Britt Daniel, whose lyrics often arrive in cryptic epigrams, has also been exploring a more nuanced, even soulful thread over the last decade. The vulnerability isn't explicit — a few words here and there can be interpreted as revealing, but he steers well clear of the confessional and the melodramatic. Yet "They Want My Soul" shimmers with an unexpected, even fragile beauty thanks to Daniel's development as a vocalist.
When the brooding, hard-hitting, midtempo discontent of "Rent I Pay" melts into "Inside Out," it's a great example of how the sequencing of songs can take the listener on a journey. In this case, "Inside Out" arrives like a soothing balm. "Time gets distorted," the narrator sings, troubled but hopeful. Daniel's voice slips into falsetto, floating away on a gentle waterfall of harplike tones and subtle wordless backing vocals.
"Do You" snaps a picture of a down-and-outer who glimpses his possible redemption on the street, and like the Rolling Stones' "Waiting on a Friend," it feels as though everything's going to be OK for a few minutes as Daniel pushes his voice into an upper register. "I Just Don't Understand," a downcast pop ballad covered by the Beatles in the early '60s, gets a surprisingly transparent reading, Daniel's bittersweet delivery underpinned by a dissonant piano.
Spoon adds some new conspirators, who help tweak the tonal and emotional temperature. Keyboardist Alex Fischel (a key member of Divine Fits, Daniel's recent side project with Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner) adds an array of new colors, as do world-class producers Joe Chiccarelli and Dave Fridmann. The trance-like, futuristic rush of "Outlier" sounds particularly fresh.
A number of Spoon signatures remain. "They Want My Soul" could be read as some sort of post-apocalyptic nightmare, a commentary on the music business, a series of love affairs gone wrong — or possibly none of the above. As usual, the songs leave plenty of room for the listeners to adapt them to their own lives, but this time the emotions are right there on the surface, thanks to Daniel's widening range as a vocalist and Spoon's versatility as a band, integrating the keyboards even more deeply into its sound. The quintet likes to pull melody out of dissonance and repetition. Now they've also found the soul.
'They Want My Soul'
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)