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The Last Rock Band Standing

Spoon is arguably the greatest indie band of the last 20 years, with a new album to prove it. How have they stayed so good for so long?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

I fell for Spoon frontman Britt Daniel early, at his starkest, his most vulnerable, his most literate and louche. In 2001, his band had already stumbled through several Indie Rock Stations of the Cross, including a brief and wildly dissatisfying dalliance with a major label, Elektra. The experience was so deflating that he wrote a pissy song or two about his former A&R man. “Are you ever honest with anyone?” he moaned, a wounded young dude betrayed by the real world and the empty suits that filled it. And so, for solace and inspiration, Daniel turned, as many of us do at our most deflated, to his father.

“The Fitted Shirt,” off Spoon’s third album, Girls Can Tell, is simple and sweet. A clean, brusque guitar riff, what you’d call Stones-y if you didn’t mind sounding ridiculous. Uncluttered bass and drums and (why not) what might be harpsichord. Meanwhile, Daniel admires his father’s clothes. That’s it. That’s the song. Opening lines: “When I was still growin’ up / And Dad head off to work / He put a coat and tie on / Over a fitted shirt.” He looks backward, to an idealized, Norman Rockwell past: “I long for the days / When they used to say / Ma’am and yes sir.” And he looks forward, to the future he wants to live in and the man he wants to be as he saunters through it. Dignified but dapper. Adult but still cool.

His delivery of that’s alright has a little Elvis to it, his upper lip curling into just the hint of a sneer. An old soul staring down a new century. How do you age gracefully — but not too gracefully — as an Indie Rock Star? How do you manage longevity — how do you sustain a career — in a field that disdains the very notion of careerism? How do you withstand the heat rays of ephemeral internet hype and survive when they’re no longer warming you? How do you stay cool, in all senses, when your style of music is deemed no longer cool in any sense?

Girls Can Tell started a monster run for Spoon that somehow still hasn’t ended: seven killer records and counting, by turns cerebral and elemental. The highlights are endless, and endlessly varied. “All the Pretty Girls Go to the City,” from 2002’s Kill the Moonlight, is driven by drummer-producer Jim Eno, tight and precise, the added percussion — shakers and tambourines, mostly — captured with more care than most other bands’ guitars. “I Turn My Camera On,” from 2005’s Gimme Fiction, is a spare and lascivious white-funk falsetto sashay, earning Prince comparisons that somehow didn’t sound ridiculous. “The Underdog,” from 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, is horn-driven and clean-cut and hooky. “Written in Reverse,” from 2010’s Transference, is a piano-bashing tirade, disheveled and deranged. “New York Kiss,” from 2014’s They Want My Soul, is swooning and distraught. Rapt superfans could go on for hours. Often, we do.

Spoon’s new album, Hot Thoughts, is out Friday. It’s their best in forever. This is, very arguably, the greatest American rock band of the past 20 years, unyielding in their excellence, confounding in their consistency. Daniel rarely writes songs as spare or vulnerable or direct as “The Fitted Shirt” anymore. But he’s as fashionable as ever, and grows more so the more unfashionable the very idea of an Indie Rock Star becomes. He is the change — and the refusal to change — that he wanted to see in the world.

If you’re desperate to sell an indie rock album, a juicy narrative can help; if you’re trying to maintain a decades-long indie rock career, an overreliance on juicy narratives will doom you eventually. The past month alone offers plenty of coping mechanisms and cautionary tales.

Last week, the Shins, long reduced to frontman James Mercer and still living down the Garden State shout-out that forever threatens to calcify them as a particular era’s zeitgeist, put out Heartworms, another album of shimmery whimsy that feels both futuristic and not quite current. The song called “Rubber Ballz” is pretty good. Mercer’s indoorsy psychedelica doesn’t have as much appeal now; there’s no good reason why, really.

His fellow Indie Rock Star icons are struggling right alongside him. Mark Kozelek, onetime mastermind of ’90s mixtape miserablists Red House Painters, is trudging on as Sun Kil Moon, a crabby and unruly fount of polarizing stream-of-unconsciousness dirges. His new record, Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood, is somnolent and proudly self-parodic as ever: Opener “God Bless Ohio” spends 10 minutes grimly surveying his home state’s rural blight, fearful of an apocalyptic future and yearning for a hilariously mundane past. (“Domino’s pizza brings me back to when I was younger, when I was younger, when I was younger, when I was younger, when I was younger.’) It’s a pretty good song, actually. Only 15 tracks and two hours to go from there.

A common theme here is Living Down Overwhelming Hype. Conor Oberst, the anti-heartthrob behind Bright Eyes who has battled a very specific and unpleasant set of demons lately, also has a record out this week — an hour-plus jam session called Salutations, heavy on accordions and waltzes. Its best song, “You All Loved Him Once,” tracks a fallen messiah’s path from coronation to crucifixion. He sounds like he relates. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah just released The Tourist, a little placid and a little yelp-y, still not getting much respect, in large part because their silly band name (which is their fault) is still synonymous with a very specific and unpleasant era of mid-aughts blog hype (which is not their fault). There’s a song called “The Vanity of Trying.” Finally, there are the Dirty Projectors, once the saviors of Brooklyn, now likewise reduced to a one-man outfit with a new album that messily contends with the breakup of a band and a love affair, at one point specifically likening both to the gentrification of Williamsburg. It’s wild. It’s inappropriate. It’s compelling. It’s not much fun.

There are great moments on all those records, but not one second of any of them scans as remotely triumphant. All of these bands are success stories, loaded up with accolades and commanding their own rapt superfans. But all that attention, all that praise, all that success has now, to varying degrees, poisoned these artists, or distorted them, or forced them into boxes they’re now eager to smash, whether their fans like it or not. It’s a constant battle; it’s a constant struggle. It’s not supposed to be fun.

Spoon has never had this problem; there is not one second of Hot Thoughts that does not feel triumphant. (Two words often associated with Britt Daniel are strut and swagger.) The band originated in Austin, Texas — maybe the key to happiness is to not live in Brooklyn at all. It’s not that they’ve avoided the hype cycle: They’re critical darlings, Saturday Night Live veterans, cool-kid A-listers. They’ve already played multiple songs from this record on multiple late-night talk shows. But they’ve never had a period of perilous overexposure, a juicy narrative that grew to define and confine and suffocate them. Daniel does plenty of press but cheerfully remains squirrely, remote, inscrutable. The theme of every new Spoon record is “another maddeningly excellent Spoon record”; these high points are so sustained that they barely count as an arc. There’s no story here other than They Did It Again.

Like They Want My Soul (the band’s weakest record, if we’re nit-picking), Hot Thoughts is coproduced by the spacey maximalist Dave Fridmann. He’s the guy the Flaming Lips and MGMT and Sleater-Kinney went to when they got the urge to try to fill stadiums, or at least planetariums. This is, above all, a humid record, the pianos and mellotrons and whatnot with a woozy underwater feel, the guitars doling out thrilling electric jolts. It’s a headphone record that makes you dial in, not zone out. “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” swaggers and struts, the ominous chord progression a throwback to Gimme Fiction’s “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” Daniel howling the chorus with a Trent Reznorian aggression: “Do I have to talk you into it? / Do we have to make sense of it?” He pushes you away on the surly, organ-driven “I Ain’t the One”; he pulls you back in with that falsetto on “Can I Sit Next to You.”

Even the record’s artier moments are too sharp not to signify alternate-universe pop hits: “Pink Up” is a gorgeous trance of shakers and rolling drums and tape-delay groans, a marathon skinny-jeans yoga sessions. Late in the game comes “Shotgun,” a brasher and bawdier post-punk sorta deal, with Daniel back to maximum swagger, leading up to this:

Daniel is likely no longer fantasizing about day jobs, benefit plans, 401(k)s, exit strategies. He is, undoubtedly to his chagrin and maybe yours, an Elder Statesman now — a full-fledged Indie Rock Star who hasn’t ever triggered a backlash, has never mired himself in self-pity or remorse. There are no phases to Spoon, no boom times or fallow periods. They leave you wanting more, and then come right back and give it to you. That’s it. Daniel never had to put on a uniform, or even a shirt with a collar. But he often does, because it’s the dapper, dignified thing to do. Because it fits him.