If you’re in the generation that grew up on ‘80s hooks and textures just in time to have those instincts meet the sucker punch of ‘90s irony, squaring that circle of conflicting poses and passions is the ultimate musical challenge. Nine albums in, Spoon just might have finally cracked the code.
Hot Thoughts succeeds first and foremost as a disarmingly subtle way of taking a meaningful evolutionary step as a band. Even a quick listen reveals that they’ve taken their sonic palette to its most adventurous conclusion. It’s not the first time they’ve been willing to bathe their sound in synthesizers or other electronic treatments (witness “New York Kiss,” or “Was It You”), but it’s the first time they’ve let some of the elegant sonic spaces truly overtake the record.
Throughout all the songs on Hot Thoughts, there are far longer stretches without vocals or twitchy guitar than ever before. Following the Eastern-tinged and (yes, for Spoon, oddly) sexy title track, “WhisperI’lllistentohearit,” is Blade Runner Spoon in the best way – sporadic Britt Daniel vocals/guitar over a driving but lush bed of sound. “Pink Up” begins with a beautiful intro and lets things unfurl with true restraint. From the beginning the band has made rhythmic music that was too tense to dance to, but now they’re making tense music that is rich enough to be beautiful. The album even ends with “Us” – a horn-laden instrumental (!) reminiscent of nothing so much as Black Star.
In many ways Hot Thoughts feels like a tribute to David Bowie, who personified the elusive bridge between the conflicting pop, punk, art and party impulses that the Gen-Xers have always struggled to find. Certainly other bands have tried. For all their touted affiliations with Bowie, Arcade Fire’s attempts at reconciling post-punk, new wave and the indie revolution that followed have always been a bit big and bombastic. Hot Thoughts is crisp, arch and flowing, proving Spoon to be among Bowie’s most astute heirs in spirit.
Rest assured, Spoon still does Spoon just fine. “Shotgun” and “Do I Have to Talk You Into It,” still find drummer Jim Eno’s snare kicking its way through the mix, while “Tear It Down” joins “The Underdog” in Spoon’s canon of smart but calm and lightly allegorical political statements. Britt Daniel still sounds angry, smart, confused, tired and earnest all at once and his guitar work is a stretch cooler than before when placed in less boxy confines.
All Spoon albums have some great songs and tasteful production touches, but Hot Thoughts might be the first time they didn’t do another year’s slightly tweaked version of Girls Can Tell. To arrive at such a worthwhile new vista roughly 24 years in is a pretty serious achievement, and all with no more overt fanfare than a humble presentation of one of their best offerings.