THE UNDERDOGS: Spoon’s ‘Transference’

A column about underrated albums that didn’t get their due.

The first Spoon song I ever heard was—surprise, surprise—“The Underdog,” off their 2007 album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. The station was GRock Radio 106.3, an alternative rock station that played everything from the Pixies to Pavement to Arcade Fire. Sure, the station stuck mostly to their accessible singles, but I can easily draw the line from GRock to my established music tastes today.

You can’t, however, draw a similar line from Ga Ga to Spoon’s 2010 follow-up, Transference. Aided by its lo-fi aesthetic, the album sounds sparser and darker than anything the band had done before. Forget brass! Opener “Before Destruction” could pass for a Guided By Voices cut. “Mystery Zone” is the closest we hear of the grooves that made Ga Ga such a commercial hit. Bands change directions between albums, sure. But newer fans may have been understandably caught off guard with Transference.

Transference is a perfect example of an album that doesn’t need to fit into a neat storyline. If anything, it provides the rawest, most direct evidence of what makes Spoon such a great band. Take “Mystery Zone,” a song built around a single, catchy as fuck riff. Or what about “Is Love Forever?,” the closest thing on the album to a banger, thanks to the punchy hook.

Britt Daniel showcases his pointed lyrics over songs that aren’t deceptively catchy or bright. On “Mystery Zone,” he asks us to consider an alternate life catalyzed through visits to the Houston club of the same name. He examines the power dynamics between a Japanese worker and his boss on “Who Makes Your Money.” On “Nobody Gets Me But You,” Daniel’s gratefulness for his nameless confidante slides into near obsession. “I thought they get me like you / Oh no!” 

Simply put, Spoon knows how to write great rock songs.

You could also picture the band playing these songs in an open garage. No track displays this better than “Trouble Comes Running.” And if that garage happened to have a piano, why not add “Written In Reverse” and “I Saw the Light” to the set list?

It’s important to note this sound wasn’t entirely new for Spoon. Their brilliant and explosive 1998 debut, A Series of Sneaks, established them as confident newcomers in the garage rock vein. Their 2001 LP, Girls Can Tell, was softer, yet showcased their ability to operate in more than one lane. Sonically, Transference has more in common with this earlier work. Yet enough time had passed that Spoon could go at it from a fresh perspective. 

There are a few explanations for the underrated status of Transference. The album came out in January 2010, the same month as Beach House’s Teen Dream and Vampire Weekend’s Contra, and more excellent albums would soon follow. Their 2014 follow-up, They Want My Soul, also didn’t do their legacy any favors. The album marked the return to their Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Gimme Fiction-era sound (in their review, Pitchfork even called They Want My Soul a “proper follow-up” to Ga Ga.). And perhaps given the album’s understated tone, it’s understandable how Transference could be pushed aside.

These arguments make sense. But they also overlook the significance of Transference. Here’s a band that had steadily built their reputation on constantly exploring new terrain without losing hold of their identity. Yes, Spoon wrote “The Underdog,” but Transference showed younger fans they were capable of doing so much more.

Give them enough time, and they’ll probably do it all.