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Review: Spoon Fully Embrace Artifice on the Kaleidoscopic Hot Thoughts

“Coconut milk, coconut water, you still like to tell me they’re the same–who am I to say?” Britt Daniel sings over disco-punk drums and a moiré pattern of overlapping studio effects on “First Caress,” the fourth song on Spoon’s kaleidoscopic ninth studio album Hot Thoughts. Delivered with the rakish assurance that Daniel brings to all of his material and punctuated with a couple of Elvis Presley uh-huhs for good measure, the line almost sounds like a taunt to the listener. Can you believe we’re getting away with this, it asks, singing about coconuts and still making it sound like rock’n’roll?

It’s the most memorable lyric on Hot Thoughts, if only by dint of its silliness. And according to Daniel and drummer Jim Eno, it almost didn’t make the record at all. “Jim at one point was just like, ‘Do not take that line out. You’re not gonna take that line out, right?’” Daniel explained in a delightful interview at Stereogum. “Because sometimes I hear a new demo,” Eno elaborated, “And a line’s different. So sometimes when I’m listening to a song I’ll be like, ‘Hey man, leave it. I love this line… DON’T change it.’”

Every rock record is an artifice, an assemblage of multitracked drum takes, punched-in guitar solos, carefully compressed vocals–all tweaked and re-tweaked and mixed down in the studio until the songs sound natural, as if a few young dudes huddled in a room together, plugged into their amps, and started bashing. In an era when 14 year olds can purchase a few hundred dollars worth of digital audio equipment and turn out tracks that sound like top 40 radio, even the grittiest lo-fi punk dispatches are the products of a conscious aesthetic choice.

Rather than work to keep up the illusion of spontaneous magic, like so many less interesting bands do without even realizing they’re doing it, Spoon have always taken mischievous pleasure in showing us the seams. Think of Daniel screaming at the top of his lungs and struggling to be heard above the band during the bridge of “Advance Cassette” from 1998’s A Series of Sneaks, then cutting through the mix easily with his comparatively restrained crooning a few seconds later, or the way the snare sound suddenly bifurcates at the end of “Metal School,” from the same album. Think of the way Daniel is occasionally interrupted by his own off-mic muttering on “Rent I Pay,” from 2014’s They Want My Soul, or of Eno’s entreaties to keep absurd placeholder lyrics in their songs rather than replace them with something smoother. 2010’s polarizing Transference was an entire album of Beauchene skulls, compositions that opened themselves up and exposed their own disjointed insides as they progressed.

None of this would matter much, of course, if it weren’t for their seemingly endless repository of great songs. One of Spoon’s essential appeals is the ability to play these reflexive tricks while sounding like the world’s most stylish bar band, and not spawn of the famous German avant-gardists who gave them their name. While exposing the very idea of the raw, unfettered rock album as fraudulent, Spoon have managed to make album after album that compels you to swagger down the sidewalk as you listen or throw your arm around a friend for a late-night singalong. They’re like an illusionist who reveals his stacked deck halfway through the act and still leaves you with the feeling that you’ve witnessed magic.

Hot Thoughts is the band’s first album helmed entirely by Dave Fridmann, the producer who helped turn the Flaming Lips from Oklahoma’s weirdest garage band into a psychedelic symphony orchestra–a guy who knows the charms of elaborate artifice well. It follows They Want My Soul, which was co-produced by Fridmann and Joe Chiccarelli. In the Stereogum interview, Daniel said that “Inside Out,” an excellent Fridmann-produced electro-soul song from that album, presented a kind of jumping off point for Hot Thoughts, an album they hoped would sound “futuristic” and have “not a lot of guitars.”

For the most part, Hot Thoughts doesn’t succeed by either of those metrics, but that’s not really to its detriment. Hot Thoughts sounds like Spoon and Dave Fridmann’s idea of a futuristic, guitarless record, which is to say it’s full immaculately constructed rock songs arranged on layers and layers of synthesizers and studio fireworks. There are fewer guitar parts than usual, but the instrument still figures on pretty much every song–it’s just that when it does show up, it might channel Prince and Nile Rodgers instead of Black Francis or Fred “Sonic” Smith. Aside from the electronics, none of this is really new territory for Spoon: Eno has always played drums with the skillful economy of an R&B session player, all closed hi-hat and snare, and the band has been openly flirting with funk and disco since at least as far back as “I Turn My Camera On” in 2005.

At this point, it’s safe to assume a new Spoon album will be a joy to listen to, even if it won’t upend your idea of what a Spoon album can be. On that front, Hot Thoughts delivers. The album-opening title track is an instant classic of the band’s canon, with a tight descending bass line and bells that combine to form something like their version of a James Bond theme song. “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” sounds like the Beatles might if they had ridden the Magical Mystery Tour bus all the way into the hip-hop era, with boom-bap drums crushed by distortion and phaser and Daniel evoking a loose and throaty John Lennon, or an unusually tuneful Mark E. Smith. “Tear It Down” is a midtempo barroom number in the manner of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga closer “Black Like Me,” with a singalong chorus about a besieged relationship that doubles as unintentional rallying cry against the Trump administration: “Let them build a wall around us, I don’t care, I’m gonna tear it down / It’s just bricks and ill-intentions, they don’t stand a chance, I’ll tear it down.”

Though Hot Thoughts doesn’t have quite the hooky firepower of recent career highlights Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga or They Want My Soul–there’s nothing quite like “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” or “Do You” here–it’s notable for the way Fridmann and the band directed their passion for exploring the studio toward something resembling a mongrel version of 2017 pop. Rather than packing the songs with metamusical easter eggs, they’re simply stuffing every available corner with a bit of shiny synthetic ear candy: the piped-in piano that closes the chorus of “First Caress,” the squalling feedback of “WhisperI’lllistentohearit.”

On “Pink Up” and “Us,” two tracks built around the same mallet percussion theme, Spoon nearly abandon the rock band guise entirely. The former, with its gently insistent arpeggios and four-on-the-floor pulse, sounds remarkably like Four Tet’s 2010 album There Is Love In You, about as unlikely a point of comparison as I can think of; the latter is an instrumental that devotes much of its runtime to dueling saxophones that shimmer with unnatural-sounding reverb. “Pink Up” and “Us” are anomalies on Hot Thoughts, and they present a risky and intriguing potential path forward for the band. They sound a little like the future, to paraphrase Britt Daniel, but they don’t sound anything like Spoon.