With their 25th anniversary on the horizon, Spoon have been around a long time, and they know it. But despite their vintage, they've been able to sidestep the "dad rock" label appended to contemporaries like the National and Wilco. Instead of slowing things down, Spoon's ninth album, Hot Thoughts, goes the opposite direction, with a newfound focus on sexual intimacy and personal freedom.
Lead singer Britt Daniel attributes these themes to recent developments in his personal life. During the record's conception, "I broke free from some people that I was with for a while," he reveals. "Once I broke free from them, I realized it was a good thing, and that my life could be a lot easier and less cluttered [without them].
"I feel liberated!"
It's hard not to hear it. With some of Spoon's biggest risks and deviations, Hot Thoughts sounds the least like anyone's definition of a typical Spoon record, while also being their most self-assured. "I don't think that happens with every band that's around as long as we have been," Daniel says. "I think a lot of good things came together at once and we were able to make this record that goes in different directions."
Picking up where 2014's They Want My Soul left off, Hot Thoughts continues to infuse Spoon's swaggering rock sound with hints of psychedelia, largely thanks to the addition of keyboardist and guitarist Alex Fischel, who joined the band in 2013 after playing with Daniel in short-lived supergroup Divine Fits (with Dan Boeckner from Operators/Wolf Parade). Fischel's meticulous selection of synth patches led to the instrument's increased presence all over the new record, whether as a wavering backbone on the title track or taking the lead on full-blown ballad "I Ain't the One."
The instrument's takeover was swift, primarily due to Fischel's new role as Daniel's go-to composing partner. "I would write a song in the traditional way that I do," Daniel explains. "Sometimes I'd be on acoustic guitar, and sit on that demo and think, 'Do I really want a song with acoustic guitar? No!'" Daniel's desire to change things up led him to seek out Fischel to help reshape the songs. "We'll come up with a completely different way to play these chords and for me to sing these words. We ended up with a lot of the songs on the record."
It's not just offstage where Daniel has shed some excess. Now that Spoon is a five-piece, Daniel has been relieved of some of his instrumental duties, and the change is making him feel (and sound) like more of a frontman than ever before. "I think, for a long time, I wanted to just hide behind the guitar," he reveals. "It's an easy thing to do, just stand behind the guitar — it's between you and the audience, and it's something you're doing. That was a comfortable thing for me.
"But the more that I've played shows where many of the songs I'm just singing, the more I enjoy it. I feel like I can concentrate more on the singing, making an actual performance of the vocal."
Daniel believes the lineup change has also helped move the band forward in the studio. "On previous records, any part that was on keyboard or guitar had to be able to be performed by me [live], and I'm somewhat limited," he admits. "So with Alex, we can do a lot of things that we could never have done before."
New territory covered on the record includes two of Spoon's wildest experiments to date. Album closer "Us" is a rare instrumental track that centres around duelling saxophones, courtesy of hired gun Ted Taforo, while dub-influenced centrepiece "Pink Up" features darbuka, steel pan and vibraphone. "We actually listened to the end of [Prince's] 'Purple Rain' a bit for that one," says Daniel. "Once the real song is over, it goes to this unsettled but trippy place. I think we used that as a reference point."
Daniel, a "lifelong Prince fanatic," drew much inspiration from the High Priest of Pop following his passing in April 2016, smack dab in the middle of Hot Thoughts' recording. It's no coincidence, then, that Hot Thoughts is without a doubt Spoon's sexiest record, from the breathy opening of the title track to the wordless intimacy of "Us." "I've been watching a lot of Prince, listening to a lot of Prince, especially in the last year," says Daniel. "I'm sure that had some effect."
It's remarkable how a band formed in 1993 could be named the "artist of the decade" in 2009 (by review aggregator Metacritic) and still be pushing boundaries in 2017, but Spoon's continued relevance is due to the members' constant desire for change while also remaining true to their ideals. Having devoted fans and supporters doesn't hurt either. "I am pretty lucky that we can make whatever kind of record we want and someone still wants to put it out, someone still wants to buy it," Daniel admits. "We probably couldn't have done it as a first album."
As a ninth record, coming nearly 25 years into Spoon's existence, Hot Thoughts sounds just as fresh as the band's debut. Whether with their trademark jaunty anthems or an album-closing sax freakout, Spoon's gritty charm remains.
"I feel like we're in a good place," says Daniel. "The record takes us to some zones that we've never been to and, as much as I love acoustic guitars and love acoustic albums, I felt like what we wanted to do with this album is not be as earthy, and be more about the future."