America’s political polarization is at a dangerous high right now. It feels almost as if nobody can agree on anything, and it’s getting harder to see where common ground might lie.
This ties into the state of art, which is also remarkably fractured at the moment. Music in particular feels inescapably divisive, to the point where we fight about our favorite artists more than we talk about them. Critically adored superstars like Kanye West aren’t afraid to put out albums which basically dare people to keep listening (and that’s not saying anything about his much-hated-on personal life.) And even perennial favorites like Radiohead have left a few people scratching their heads as of late.
There is something to be said for a musical landscape which elicits strong emotions, positive or negative. A fascinating failure can in theory be more interesting than a piece of competent adequacy. But where do music-lovers go when they want to know what they’re going to get? Where do the vinyl-collecting, bootleg-having, listening-to-everything among us end up when they want something consistent?
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Spoon.
With the release of its new album, They Want My Soul, the indie outfit, most famous for its appearances in The OC and movie trailers, has retained its position as the most consistent band on the planet. As Metacritic noted when Spoon came out No. 1 in its list of artists with the highest average of positive record reviews from the last decade, “the band topping the list was a surprise to us… albeit a pleasant one. The Austin, Texas indie-rock band Spoon may not be the most prolific band of the decade, but they were the most consistently great. From 2001’s stellar Girls Can Tell to 2007’s, well, stellar Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the Britt Daniel-led group received accolades from the music press and music fans for their impeccable songwriting and addictive songs.”
With Metacritic putting all Spoon’s releases in the 80-85 range (81 denotes “universal acclaim” on the site), it’s hard to figure out why this little band has resonated the way it has. Without a doubt, there have been other indie rock acts who have broken out bigger, won more awards, and gotten larger acclaim for specific albums. But it is Spoon who emerges as the “sure thing.”
For Flavorwire’s Jillian Mapes, this is because Spoon is all about the music; the band doesn’t rely on gimmicks or tricks the way other bands do. Because of this, Spoon doesn’t always make for the best headlines either. But there is a purity to what it does.
“An album cycle for Arcade Fire would not be complete without secret shows at warehouses and salsa clubs, cryptic graffiti teasers in major cities worldwide, even papier mâché heads worn by each band member… Vampire Weekend took out an ad in the ‘Notices and Lost & Found’ section of The New York Times to announce last year’s Modern Vampires of the City. While promoting 2011’s El Camino, The Black Keys pretended to be hawking a beat-up minivan — the album’s namesake model — with newspaper ads, a phone line, and a website called WannaBuyAVan.com. Entertaining? Definitely. Exhausting? A little.
…Spoon’s music has very little to hide behind — and it doesn’t need to. Every album they’ve released since the turn of the century has worked off the same sound with neither major revisions nor the elaborate narratives that accompany musical changes in direction… I can see how Spoon would be a frustrating band for people who dislike what they do. They never change, yet they get tons of press for it. They’re infuriatingly cool without ever trying too hard. They’re easy to get into but hard to connect with emotionally… But as far as their specific brand of rock ‘n’ roll — clever but not so clever that you can’t shake your ass to it —They Want My Soul is right up there with 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the album that perfected Spoon’s formula.”
So there you go. Spoon’s odd key to success has simply been to keep their distance. This isn’t necessarily a band determined to mean everything to you, but they mean something. And while what that “thing” is appears to be slightly elusive, it’s clear that they’ve figured out how to deliver it again and again.
Are there other musicians like this working today? There are definitely none exactly like Spoon, but the utensil-named band does present a good opportunity to talk about just what consistency looks like in today’s confusing musical hierarchy.
Looking at other indie bands, Spoon’s most direct parallel in terms of consistency is likely the Brooklyn group TV on the Radio. Accumulating a track record over the last 10-plus years that indeed rivals that of Spoon’s, TV on the Radio is another case of the frequently lauded, but rarely over-hyped. The band hasn’t put out quite as much as their Austin brethren (who haven’t really put out that much themselves), but they are still working, having dropped Nine Types of Light in 2011 and with the upcoming Seeds expected later this year.
That said, the important and obvious difference between the two bands is the music itself. TV on the Radio is actively experimental, whereas at least some of the appeal of Spoon comes from how well the band knows its formula, and how reliable it is in dispensing that.
According to Metacritic though, Spoon’s closest relation as far as consistency goes is not an indie act, but a hip-hop one: the Atlanta duo Outkast. Praising the skills of MCs Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and André “André 3000” Benjamin, Metacritic gushed, “Even less prolific than Spoon but almost more accomplished is the Atlanta rap duo OutKast, who scored two of the best-reviewed albums of the decade in Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. If they could have pulled off the trifecta, they would have finished with the decade’s highest average Metascore; instead, OutKast’s third and final release of the period, Idlewild, was merely good.”
Idlewild being “merely good” aside, the importance of Outkast in modern music cannot be understated, in no small part because this is 2014. Among popular genres right now, hip-hop is probably the most divided of all. At the end of 2012, Pitchfork’s Andrew Nosnitsky wrote, “Rap fans tend not to agree on very much these days. The hip-hop monoculture dissolved around the turn of the century and, ever since, dissensus has reigned supreme. Still, the world of rap music has felt especially fragmented in 2012, as if everything that was once cracked had finally shattered.”
It follows then that a group as universally loved as Outkast can only be an exceptional thing in 2014. That’s why when the rumors of their reunion from last year turned out to be true, it was kind of a big deal, despite the mixed reaction their tour ultimately elicited.
However, the intrinsically amazing thing about Outkast is how its consistency has struck a chord not only in the hip-hop world, but with people who would normally have nothing to do with hip-hop; these were the guys who were going to convert you to rap or make you realize you would simply never “get it.” Jeff Weiss (also of Pitchfork) hypothesizes that, “There are people who think the Beatles are too sappy. Prince is too weird. Radiohead is too icy. James Brown wore everything a little too tight. But everyone agrees on OutKast. At their peak, the duo’s popularity rivaled income tax refunds, cute puppies, and free samples.”
But Outkast also represents a fascinating strain of beloved, uniformly dependable artists who rose to prominence in the 2000s but aren’t really together anymore. Another thing you have to give Spoon credit for: After almost 20 years, they’re still going strong. The same cannot be said for The White Stripes, who were ranked in 2009 as Metacritic’s fifth highest-rated band of the decade. Moreover, although Jack White has remained a constant force in the music industry, he’s made it clear that a reunion in the form of the band that made him famous is pretty unlikely, giving a controversial interview in May in which he called former partner Meg White a “hermit.”
Then there’s Sleater-Kinney, who have been making music for a long time, despite the fact that they haven’t put out a new release in 10 years. Of course, in this case, that probably has something to do with member Carrie Brownstein’s increasingly successful attempts to take over Hollywood. But for what it’s worth, the highly regarded group is supposedly toying with the idea of a reunion.
Brownstein’s story makes for a good introduction to the next artist in the consistency conversation, Mr. Tom Waits. Like Brownstein, many surely know the gravel-voiced singer more as an actor than as a musician. But the remarkable thing about Waits’s presence today is just how far back his career stretches (his first major release came out in 1973). Sure, in a discography that long, there are bound to be some lesser efforts, but with Waits, the whole picture is astonishingly polished.
Waits hasn’t been sporadic in his output either. His last album, Bad as Me, arrived in 2009. And the fact that he has time to do films without letting his music career slip makes him somewhat singular. To call him a dinosaur is technically fair, but if he is a dinosaur, he’s more a velociraptor than anything. No one else has put out as much music, for as long, while remaining as consistently good, while also dodging labels of “classic rock” or “indie rock,” instead falling into a category all his own. To say the least, Waits’s story is undeniably impressive.
Finally, there’s a certain joy in this uncertain era that’s found not only in consistency, but in consistently improving. In that, there’s hardly any other artist working today as formidable as St. Vincent, a.k.a. the elusive indie queen, Annie Clark. St. Vincent’s Metacritic scores range from 78-89, and have gone up with each subsequent release (her self-titled latest arrived in February).
But the other element that makes Clark so compelling is the way she has managed to be regularly great, without losing any of her unpredictability. This is an artist who at once seems both completely in control and wildly unhinged.
These days, talking music is often more about the discussion around the music than it is about the music itself. This isn’t always a bad thing, as these discussions are frequently interesting in an entirely different context than the sonic or even lyrical merits of a given performer/performers. But there’s also something wonderful about a band like Spoon, which demands nothing of you except that you shut up and listen. Consistency is not required to create great music, but it can be a refreshing change of pace in a world that won’t stop yelling at itself.
With simple, steady grooves, Spoon has become the most surprising kind of musical act of all: one known for its output, not its antics.
Photo via k.par.photo/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)