If you feel like you’ve heard “Don’t Make Me a Target,” the first song off Spoon’s sixth album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, it’s because 2005’s stellar record Gimme Fiction opens with “The Beast and the Dragon, Adored,” which, in its descending piano vamp and slightly dark, vaguely pointed lyrics, is nearly the same tune. This is no accident. Spoon’s longevity is due to its members’ consistent and strict adherence to form; they know what works, and unlike most current artists, it’s not unchecked confidence that propels them forward, it’s knowledge, understanding, and refined skill. They’ve found the blueprint to the instantly memorable rock song — and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga contains several — and continued to follow the instructions.
Here’s what we’ve heard before: “Eddie’s Ragga” and “Rhythm & Soul” tread familiar, mid-tempo rock waters, and new song “Don’t You Evah” is a two-chord paint-by-numbers rehash of every moderately rocking Beatles song — “Taxman,” “The Word” — set to a current yet predictable template. They are great songs, but they’d fit in perfectly on Fiction. Throughout, singer Britt Daniels’s characteristically sparse, sharp guitar and Jim Eno’s bare, function-over-form drumming keep the album in a steady hold pattern. In these ways, Ga plays like a Fiction sequel. Which, to be honest, is more than okay, but then there are two songs that make you reconsider.
“The Underdog” will likely often be cited as the album’s highlight, and for good reason. As the sum of its specific parts — which I’ll get into — “The Underdog” is a benchmark in that it effectively vaults Spoon into new territory. The beginning acoustic triplet strum is identical to Fiction‘s “I Summon You,” but from there “The Underdog” adds a rousing brass section that provides depth and an intriguing and energetic heft to Daniels’s boisterous chorus. If he’s not confrontational with the lyrics “You’ve got no fear of the underdog/ That’s why you will not survive,” then he’s at least as direct as he’s ever been. It’s a refreshing track, not just for its lyrical accessibility and its new flashiness but also because it weakens the wall from which Spoon typically hides behind.
The other compass point is the Motown sound of “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb.” Here Eno, keyboardist Eric Harvey, and bassist Rob Pope push the song forward with the steady — and timeless — momentum of simple piano, straight-ahead bass and snare hits, and prominent tambourine. Credit goes to long-time producer Mike McCarthy, who keeps Spoon’s experimental side in check and gives the song an authentic charming but brash ’60s girl-group feel. It veers proudly in a new direction, and it simultaneously has both the immediate appeal of a lost Motown classic and the ability to sit nicely atop the best songs in Spoon’s catalog.
Some songs here didn’t grow on me. “Finer Feelings” floats by unremarkably, “My Little Japanese Cigarette Case” is pallid and dishearteningly monotonous, and the album’s first single, “The Ghost of You Lingers,” is actually a deterrent in its experimentation; it says a lot, but in doing so swirls itself into a hole.
But the split between pushing the boundaries and sticking to a formula is not Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga‘s deciding factor. In the final song, the tender “Black Like Me” (reminiscent of the Beta Band’s “Dry the Rain”), Spoon plays without a thought to past or future, and it turns out to be the album’s capstone. Not for its change of pace or flashy add-ons but for something Spoon is rarely recognized for: vulnerability. Daniels’s lyrics aren’t typically the focus of his songs, but when he sings, with distinct hope rounding out the cracks in his falsetto, “I believed that someone/ Would take care of me tonight,” it’s more than just a matter of being moved by his sincerity, it’s about being convinced. Where in the past he has leaned toward the vague phrase, more concerned with pacing or placement around a melody, here he is engaged in a direct, open, and heartbreaking conversation. I’m not holding out for Spoon to speak for a generation, but sometimes it’s the simplest art that holds up the longest. In its own characteristically sparse way, Spoon keeps growing and, little by little, letting us in.