An interesting outpouring of love for Spoon, the Austin/Portland (well Britt Daniel lives there anyhow) rock band occurred over the weekend. And I meant to write about this sooner but a lot of the discussion happened on Tumblr and well, it was down for an unseemly long time. So, this is going to be the TL;DR version of what that post would have been.
It all started with an off-hand passage from Steven Hyden’s Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation? series on the Onion AV Club. I’ve mentioned it before as being the best thing in music journalism right now.
In the ’00s, no indie-rock band put out material as consistently strong as Spoon. Britt Daniel steadfastly refused to write even one clunker on Spoon’s records, which were released every two or three years to an audience that was impressed, then amazed, and then slightly bored by how Spoon never made an artistic misstep. This consistency proved to be a double-edged sword. Spoon was both highly respected and yet not passionately adored. Almost everybody that followed indie rock seemed to like Spoon, but never as much as bands not necessarily expected to be brilliant. It was only when you looked back over the course of several years that you realized that, holy shit, Spoon was one of the best bands of its era.
To which Matthew Perpetua chimed in:
This digression about Spoon, which has little to do with its ongoing remembrance of the alt-rock 90s, is so ridiculously CORRECT CORRECT CORRECT that I had to share it here. This phenomenon is the #1 thing I am most bitter about as a music critic. I hate that the thing I most treasure as a fan of music — artists who are consistently brilliant — has this way of damning great musicians to faint praise and/or indifference. Spoon is certainly the best example in recent memory, but it happens with a lot of my favorite acts and ugh ugh ugh. Watch out, James Murphy. You’re next.
Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem may be next, but it’s also happening with British darlings Belle & Sebastian.
And then Eric Harvey chimed in about most music critics and fans casual indifference to Spoon’s 2010 album Transference, which was very good and very Spoon-ey and yet, because it wasn’t quite different enough, like say their breakout album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga most people just shrugged and moved on. There was no angle to write about the album, other than to say yes it was another good Spoon album, which, let’s be honest, doesn’t make for a very interesting article.
As for this year: I mean, is there a Spoonier song than “Mystery Zone” for the love of god? Isn’t “Written in Reverse” maybe Britt’s best ever vocal? Most bands will start declining after 3 or 4 albums, max. Among their fin-de-siecle indie contemporaries, only the White Stripes are really with Spoon in terms of regularity, and they’ve got nothing on them in terms of innovation; the Strokes and Interpol both lamed out after 2 albums, and Spoon only seems to be refining their craft. That to me, is like five All-Star seasons right out of the gate for an athlete. Kanye-quality excellence.
And then Dave Greenwald jumped into the fray by arguing that the slow indifference to Spoon’s greatness by the media hasn’t really hurt their career at all. Pretty much everyone I know has encoded their greatness as a band.
As far as popularity goes, they’re playing the biggest venues and selling the most records of their career, as far as I can tell. Transference debuted in the Billboard top 5. THE BILLBOARD TOP 5. They’ve always been a darling of the mainstream critics — TIME magazine has been gushing about them for years — so of course the tastemaking crowd (blogosphere, Pitchfork, etc.) is less excited about writing about “another great Spoon album” than the darlings of the moment, but I don’t think it’s hurt their career.
What all of these sentiments are digging around is the notion between critical success and actual success and why it’s harder to pin down in 2010 then ever before. It was easy to look at a band in 1990 and determine if they were a critical success or a success on the charts or a successful touring band, etc. But now, not so much. It’s harder than ever to determine if a band is popular.
But all of this is to say that Spoon is really great, perhaps the best band of the past decade, or most consistently great, and yet it still feels like they haven’t been given their due.