At the risk of oversimplifying the art form, great rock songs are built upon great guitar riffs. When such riff-rich songs that also feature memorable melodies are strung together with at least a couple of goosebump-y breakthrough moments, you’re likely to get a great rock album. With its 10th full-length studio release Lucifer on the Sofa (WNXP’s #RecordoftheWeek), the veteran indie rock band Spoon shows us how this is done.
Recorded in Austin, where the band was formed by singer-guitarist Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno nearly 30 years ago, Lucifer on the Sofa sounds like vintage Spoon — crucially catchy guitar rock a la 2001’s Girls Can Tell and 2002’s Killing The Moonlight. Daniel told me that that was, more or less, the assignment: “I didn’t feel like there were enough great rock ‘n roll records being made, and that’s what we set out to do with this one.”
Being back in Texas, instead of the rural New York studio space where they recorded synth-ier efforts Hot Thoughts (2017) and They Want My Soul (2014), returned the band to a more social, homey environment that would yield a “record that feels good to put on.” It did, and it does — feel good, that is.
Throughout Lucifer on the Sofa, there’s ample multiple-guitar riffing, and the melodies are classic Spoon: inventive but hummable chord progressions leaning heavily on both keys and guitars, anchored by Daniel’s familiar drawl. The record gets off to a hard blues-rock start with a one-two punch: “Held,” a cover of a 1999 Smog song with a midsection that recalls the psychedelic power of Tommy-era The Who, and the album’s lead single in devilish Drop-D guitar tuning, “The Hardest Cut.” Both of these tunes remind listeners that a band that stays ready doesn’t have get ready to rip.
Spoon’s rock ‘n roll arranging chops are on display throughout the first half of Lucifer on the Sofa. One breakthrough moment comes in the seamless transition between “The Devil and Mr. Jones” and the song that follows, “Wild.” That’s a testament to the thoughtful album sequencing that Daniel told me is important to him, binding the 10 tracks together as a whole work.
During “Wild,” a years-in-the-making collaboration with renowned writer and producer Jack Antonoff, the song’s instrumentation builds upon itself as the lyrics do the same with snowballing self-awareness:
I got on fine with modern living“Wild”
But must I be such a citizen?
And the world, still so wild, called to me.
I was lost, I’d been kept on my knees.
Where Side 1 is more “sinister” (Daniel’s description), the second half of the album is marked by more tenderness. The song “My Babe,” which is charming without being cheesy, splits the difference; its second chorus feels like it’s coming from a heart ready to burst:
Oh I would get locked up“My Babe”
Hold my breath, sing my heart out
Beat my chest for my babe.
Let our hearts beat in time,
Let the love go on and on now, my babe.
The rollicking piano rocker “On The Radio” pays homage to connection forged over the FM dial, which Daniel told me he found at an early age and continues to appreciate. Then the pretty, celestial musings of “Astral Jacket” and “Satellite” give listeners sips of cool air, before the title track wraps up the record. With muted horns and a steady pace, “Lucifer on the Sofa” — written in April 2020 — is a haunting relic of the first unsettling weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic:
You’ve been counting weekends“Lucifer on the Sofa”
Never getting dressed
Speaking in third person
What am I gonna do
With your last cigarettes
All your old records
All your old cassettes?
Since five years have passed since Daniel and Co. released new songs — five years marked by collective trauma and weariness — Lucifer on the Sofa was delivered to high expectations. We long to escape through music, to heal, to hope, or all of the above. It’s no so surprising that Spoon was able to meet these sky-high expectations. Because great, lasting rock bands excel at the aforementioned nuts-and-bolts stuff — riffs, melodies, moments — without fearing sonic exploration. And Spoon, which has consistently made great rock records, this one included, is certainly such a band.
On the Record: A Q&A With Britt Daniel of Spoon
Celia Gregory: Britt, how are you doing?
Britt Daniel: I’m good. How are you doing today?
CG: Good. I know this is a marathon, but thanks for prioritizing public radio in promotion of this new album.
BD: Well, I love public radio. The real music fans.
CG: That’s right. That makes two of us. You actually have a song on this new record called “On the Radio.” And I wondered, given your long career with Spoon and other bands, how important radio has been to you?
BD: Public radio in particular has always been really supportive of this band, and I find that kind of gratifying because I notice that the most hardcore music fans out there are listening to public radio or work in public radio. It’s a bit of a different animal than your typical radio station these days. I feel right at home with those stations.
But the song [“On The Radio”] is about growing up listening to the radio as a kid.
Even as far back as elementary school, I had this clock radio next to my bed. And I spent a lot of time alone, as kids sometimes do. And just having that radio on made me feel like I had a window to the world. I had some kind of outreach. I knew that something else was going on out there. That made me feel comfortable to know that the world existed beyond the walls that I was in and was still going on, and that it felt like somebody on the other end of that radio was talking to me. It made me feel a lot less lonely. And it still feels like that.
CG: Well, that’s nice to hear, it feels that way on the other end, too. This is extra special for me because I was introduced to Spoon as a college radio DJ with the Girls Can Tell record, and this kind of feels like a return to that sound for me.
BD: I can see that.
CG: There’s the talk of [Lucifer On The Sofa] being sort of a straightforward rock and roll record, but the side two is delicate in parts and there’s a lot of lush instrumentation. Can you speak generally about composing these songs and how you arranged them? Was that intentional that it starts kind of harder and then softens up with the title track at the end?
BD: Yeah, we do think about the sequencing of the records quite a bit. It means a lot to me, because albums mean a lot to me. You could paint a quite different picture of what this album is if you rearrange the songs, if you put the last song on first, for instance – the last song is kind of different from the rest of the songs on the album and in a different production style. It does start out the gate kind of loud and…sinister, you know? I just didn’t feel like there were enough great rock and roll records being made, and that’s what we set out to do on this one. But by the end of it, you’re right, it takes a left turn around song seven or eight. And it gets a little softer and then the very last thing, it kind of goes off in outer space. Totally different from the rest of it.
CG: You mentioned “sinister.” I mean, there’s some devil imagery with the title track and then “The Devil and Mr. Jones.” Did that have anything to do with your head space and writing these songs amid the pandemic?
BD: Yeah, I mean, a song like “Lucifer on the Sofa” wouldn’t have happened any time other than the pandemic. I think I wrote it in April 2020 and it’s a song about what was going on right there. It could not have happened any other time.
CG: So being back in Texas to record, how did that influence the overall sound? I think you told me “The Hardest Cut” felt to you almost like a Texas roadhouse song. Did you realize in the moment, midstream, that being back home was influencing the writing of the record? Or was it sort of when you heard the whole thing as a total work?
BD: We hoped ahead of time that it would. We wanted the record to feel different and we thought a good way of starting out was having a different experience making the record than the last couple. So, for instance, Hot Thoughts and They Want My Soul, they both were mostly made with Dave Friddman at his studio, which is in a quite isolated spot. It’s in the woods, about 20 miles from Fredonia, New York. And it’s a cool world to step inside, but you are in it and you’re in it thick. It’s very isolating. You’re by yourself for weeks at a time, maybe a month at a time.
We thought, “This time, let’s make a record where we can be in a more social spot and see how that affects the song. Let’s go back to Austin. Let’s go to a place where we can go out and go to Hotel Vegas to see a show and take that energy back home and write some songs with it. And go have a drink and then come back and mix music.” Just a different vibe. And I think it did affect the way that the record sounds. I think it’s a record that feels good to put on.
CG: I would second that. When I first heard “Wild,” it made me cry. And I don’t know if that’s been something that’s true for other people, if it’s just sort of the time of life I’m in, or maybe it’s the chord progression. Can you tell me a little bit about the composition of that song and where that came from?
BD: Yeah, that was one that I started a long time ago. I was told, “It may be good for you to go write with some people.” It’s not something I normally do, write with strangers, but I ended up meeting up with several different people. Almost none of it went anywhere. But one of the people I met up with was Jack Antonoff, who came over to my house one day in 2015, I think, and we spent just basically that afternoon together and came up with this great bit of music, but I didn’t have any words for it. I’d come back to it once a year or something. I’d whip it back out and just see if I could come up with something, and I never did. But finally, during the pandemic, I had plenty of time to spend and I got lucky, you know? Finally got lucky with coming up with words and a good melody for that one, and then it just took off.
CG: Is that a pretty standard process for you, having things sit on the shelf, whether it’s a fragment of a song or a melody, and then returning back to it, maybe even during a different album cycle?
BD: A lot of songs do get cut and end up on the cutting room floor, but they usually don’t come back. It’s happened a few times. I just knew there was something good in that one, and so I kept trying. But you never know if you’re going to keep trying and it’s going to continue to suck. Not that the music sucked, but what I was coming up with on vocals just wasn’t cutting it until this last time. And then I finally had the song. But I would prefer that all the songs happen in about 20 minutes.
CG: I know you went on tour in the fall. You’re going back out with a pretty aggressive schedule in the spring and fingers and toes crossed that none of that’s really impacted, if we can get past this (COVID-19) spike. But how are you all preparing as a band mentally for this upcoming tour and being able to share this album with fans on the road?
BD: Yeah, we went out and toured in September and October and there were a lot of things about it that were normal, but we also had these protocols for everybody to stay as healthy as possible. I was concerned that perhaps that would make touring not quite as fun. In fact, my friend John Webster warned me. He had already been out with maybe The Mountain Goats. And I said, “What’s it like out there? I know that you’re doing things some things differently.” I know that they weren’t having people backstage. They weren’t having friends on the bus. They were not eating in restaurants. And I was like, “So is it still fun?” [He said] “Well, it’s about 50 percent as fun.” And I thought it was at least 90 percent as fun; it was still a lot of fun. It was a great experience. And so I think it’ll probably be very similar in the spring. You know, we’ll have a good time.