SONIC REDUCER Riddle me this, Indie Rocker: what happens when life kicks the nice, cozy crutch of irony out from under you? Where do you go the morning after cynicism, after tearing it all down and finding the ground crumbling below? The joke may be on guess who. And you’re not out of line to hear the latest albums by Magnetic Fields, Spoon, and Vampire Weekend as the equivalent of the apocalyptic scenarios cluttering nearby cinemas like The Road and The Book of Eli — post-crash-and-burn manifestations of the late-’00s that stare into the bombed-out, blank face of hopelessness.
Sure, it’s a postmodern dilemma, this crisis of what-next. The ’90s made it so easy to snark sourly — we were all in on the joke yet went for the money shot. The ’00s began with a dot-com crash and towers crumbling, and as prez-for-a-decade Duh-bya settled into terrorize the populace, it became easy to feel the sourness curdling into bitterness. How do you turn a brave face to the future when you were defined by knowing jadedness? Talking about you, Spoon, justifiably embittered by being wooed and ditched by Elektra Records. You, Magnetic Fields — too forbiddingly smart-ass to ever be “Seduced and Abandoned,” as the words of your new song go. And you, Vampire Weekend — seemingly constructed around the cynical premise of appropriating Afropop jangle by way of early childhood exposure of Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986). Which way out?
“Everybody loves you for your black eye,” sings Britt Daniel at the onset of Spoon’s Transference (Merge). From the title that references the transfer of emotions from a patient to therapist, to the song trajectory that implies the end and beginning of relationships, Transference sees Spoon — playing the Fox Theater April 13 — questioning the whys and wherefores of love. Clinical takedowns aren’t surprising from a band that has always boasted a razor-sharp suspicion of easy emotions and facile pop hooks and prided itself on its tough-minded lyrics and honed musical contours. Those sharp corners haven’t changed altogether, but halfway through around the ambient throb of “Who Makes Your Money,” the piano-driven blues of “Written in Reverse,” and the Velvets adoration of “I Saw the Light,” the music begins to break down. And open up, culminating in Spoon’s tenderest love song, “Goodnight Laura.” The baby talk of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge, 2007) — and its prescience concerning a certain Lady pop idol — has morphed into more adult feelings, and Transference sounds like a moment when Spoon’s defenses fell and Daniel discovered new reserves of power in vulnerability, while foregrounding fall-down-the-stairs piano and fizzing horror-filmish effects.
“You can’t go around saying stuff / Because it’s pretty / And I no longer drink enough / To think you’re witty.” Despite the characteristically clever phrasing, the Magnetic Fields aren’t mincing words with “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” the opener of Realism (Nonesuch), which comes clad in the girl-symbol packaging to go with the boy plastered on the band’s last full-length, Distortion (Nonesuch, 2008). The group (at Fox Theater Feb. 27 and at Herbst Theatre March 1) has decided to play nicely this time around — whether or not you believe in realism or authenticity — promising “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree” and barbs done up in buttons and bows and late ’60s and early ’70s folk instrumentation. And in stark contrast to the candy-coated shit-fi of Distortion, Realism wallows in its startling all-acoustic, electronics-free loveliness, buffeted by umpteen mille-feuille pastry layers of autoharp, flugelhorn, harmonica, violin, sitar, and lashing rattle. Still knowing — and aware of the contrivances embedded in its aural reality show — Stephin Merritt and crew also appear to be daring their audience to embrace old-school beauty, an artifice like any other, along with sentimentality and traditional folk song values. Next stop, children’s tunes?
The most pleasant surprise must be Vampire Weekend’s new Contra (XL). The counter-revolutionary tendencies hinted at in the title apply to the group’s increasingly irreverent attitude toward its source material — making the Vampires sound less like Paul Simon than Panda Bear acolytes as they close in on those 808s and ’80s electro beats. As listenable as they are, Vampire Weekend (at the Fox Theater April 19-20) makes you work for your kicks, your pop hooks, embedding the kalimba thumb piano of “Horchata” in house-y synth and percolating rhythms, which melt naturally into “White Sky,” a union of African polyrhythms and electronic pointillism. The tour de force troika closers — “Giving Up the Gun,” “Diplomat’s Son,” and “I Think UR a Contra” — send the listener into a rippling sea of beats and a seething MIA-style South Asian grime-down that lightly pokes fun at privilege, before floating on a peaceful sea of TMI paranoia. Increasingly complex and satisfying, Vampire Weekend is growing out of its baby fangs.