It’s become a well worn cliché in music journalism circles to point out that Spoon are the single most consistent American rock band still operating today. I challenge you to find a single review of Lucifer on the Sofa, or of any Spoon album since 2010 for that matter, that doesn’t make some kind of reference to just how reliable an outfit the Texans are. Even this review couldn’t avoid doing it, despite my strongly implied pretensions of being above the whole endeavour. I guess I’ll leave it to a better writer than me to find a more original kicking off point.
But what if I want to get better? What if my professional envy gets the better of me? What does anyone do when they want to stand out? ‘Practice, practice, practice will get you to Carnegie Hall’, or so the saying goes, but that’s a lot of work and dedication, for which I lack both the time and motivation.
There must be an easier way; a shortcut, if you will. This is where we get into the business of Faustian pacts, deals with the devil, bargains with Beelzebub. Is this the secret to Britt Daniel’s success? Did the wiry frontman dance with the devil in the pale Austin moonlight a quarter of a century ago and secure his future creative consistency at the cost of the eternal damnation of his soul?
Spoon’s 10th album may not provide concrete answers to that question but it at least indicates that Daniel and the devil are on speaking terms, despite the dark lord not exactly keeping up his end of the bargain recently; that is, if the relative disappointment of 2017’s overly fussy and uninspired Hot Thoughts is anything to go by. In an interview last year, Daniel expressed his regret at the excessive studio tinkering that had sucked the dynamism out of that album’s songs; their live versions representing their true expression for him. It’s ironic then, but clearly a purposeful rejoinder to Hot Thoughts’ failings, that at a time when playing live has become virtually untenable (thanks, Covid!), Spoon have returned with their most alive-sounding record since 2010’s Transference, if not 1996’s A Series of Sneaks.
Much has been made of Spoon’s return to making ‘rock music’ and the abandonment of the electronic textures that had featured prominently on Hot Thoughts and its excellent predecessor, They Want My Soul (oh, do they Britt? I wonder why). I’m always a bit dubious about these kinds of statements; they suggest a ‘back-to-basics approach’, a move towards ‘accessibility’ and the cheap, easy thrills of ‘rock’n’roll, baby!’ And to some degree, yes, we do get that on Lucifer on the Sofa.
Lead single, “The Hardest Cut” reveals Daniel’s recent infatuation with fellow Texan legends ZZ Top: it’s a rip-roaring good time that embodies everything that’s great about Spoon’s particular brand of stripped-back, angular but groovy indie rock. It also takes some sonic risks with those big, ugly stabs of distorted guitar that interrupt the track like Jonny Greenwood purposefully trying to fuck up (but ultimately defining) “Creep”.
Elsewhere, “Feels Alright” is a catchy slice of piano-rock that feels a bit like Spoon-by-numbers, but progresses satisfyingly before kind of just… ending. Lyrically, the song subverts ‘rawk’ convention at least: Daniel is on his own, emotionally self-sufficient, and perfectly content as a result. “On The Radio” picks up the rock mantle with a “Jean Genie”-aping riff, which provides a perfect musical analogy to Daniel’s celebration of discovering music through the radio. It’s a song steeped in the mythic folklore of rock music past, both sonically and thematically. Which means it’s simultaneously a lot of fun, but also pretty dated sounding.
“Wild”, co-written by Jack Antonoff (whom I sometimes wish would just fuck anton-off), feels like Spoon with the edges sanded down. A driving anthem that could have slotted in happily on a Killers album a decade ago, it’s a well-constructed song, with a typically excellent vocal performance from Daniel, but something about it feels… off. The nod to “Sympathy for the Devil”’s piano line is a clever meta-joke about the album’s title, but is also, well, the piano line from another, much better and more memorable song.
This aesthetic is symptomatic of the album’s overall push towards accessibility. There’s very little on Lucifer on the Sofa, if anything, that could be deemed weird; no “Paper Tiger”, no “The Ghost of You Lingers”, none of the experiments of Transference. A lot of this feels safe and comfortable.
There are echoes not only of famous songs by classic artists, but of other Spoon songs. The admittedly gorgeous ballad “Astral Jacket” closes out with heavenly harps that recall “Inside Out”, while “My Babe” could have slotted in nicely on the back end of Girls Can Tell, being the kind of downtempo yet strutting piano-rock ballad that Spoon have made their calling card. Most egregious of all though are the horns that close out “The Devil & Mister Jones” which feel like a soulless nod to “The Underdog”’s triumphant refrain.
It probably says more about me than about what is a perfectly serviceable song, but “The Devil & Mister Jones” rubs me the wrong way. To me, the chord progression recalls Weezer’s “Island in the Sun”, and the overall vibe makes me think of Rob Thomas providing vocals for Santana. Which isn’t what I want from my Spoon albums.
So what is it that I want? After all, Spoon are always reliably and distinctively Spoon-y, and there’s plenty here that is Spoon at their Spoon-iest. And yet, their best records have always felt simultaneously like refinements and progressions, whether it be pushes towards minimalism (Kill the Moonlight) or maximalism (They Want My Soul), or utilising the studio as an instrument, or even a character in and of itself (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Transference). For me, there are two songs on Lucifer on the Sofa that do what I want Spoon songs to do, that push their established sound in interesting directions that suggest a world of possibilities; and for a band that has always excelled at openers and closers, it makes sense that these tracks bookend the album.
“Held” has the dubious distinction of being both the best song on Lucifer on the Sofa, and the only one not written by Spoon. To be fair though, they make the song their own, transforming what, on Smog’s 1999 album Knock Knock was a slow-burning, squalling, bluesy number, into a transcendentally messy slab of space-rock, adding necessary drama to the expression of vulnerability the song entails. It crackles with the electricity of a live performance, an impression only augmented by the incidental studio chatter included in the mix. The colossal wall of sound the band produces during “Held”’s climax indicates that they could do with breaking out of their rigid structures and cutting loose a bit more often. And yet, this approach rarely comes up again on Lucifer on the Sofa; one noticeable instance being the electrifying crescendo and guitar solo on the otherwise forgettable “Satellite”.
The closing title track is the polar opposite of “Held”, and yet is just as exciting. A classic night-time-city-stroll kind of song, “Lucifer on the Sofa” brings to mind the feel of Bowie’s Blackstar with its lounge-y saxophone and ruminations on relationships, the passing of time, and mortality. It’s easily the most emotionally affecting song on the record, and feels like it could go on for 10 minutes or more and not outstay its welcome. In another timeline, it might have been Spoon’s “Desolation Row”. As it stands, the song ends with a tantalisingly unresolved melodic refrain that suggests a beautiful coda that was excised, or maybe hints that this sound will be revisited on the next Spoon album.
It has been said that the Devil has all the best songs, and there are bright spots on Spoon’s 10th album, which indicate that Daniel’s bargain with Lucifer can still inspire him and his band to deliver the goods. It’s just that for now, it appears to be only a strong EP’s worth.