At 46 and 45 years old, respectively, James Mercer of the Shins and Spoon’s Britt Daniel might be the most prominent middle-aged guys in indie rock.
And true to the passive-aggressive tendencies of the genre they represent, neither has risen by saying precisely what he means: To look back over these bands’ sizable catalogs is to behold a trove of cryptic sentiments regarding phantom limbs, Japanese cigarette cases and bakers cutting their thumbs and bleeding into their buns.
So it comes as something of a surprise to see that the cover of each group’s new album — the Shins’ “Heartworms” and Spoon’s “Hot Thoughts” — features a creepy rendering of a skull: about as literal a symbol of mortality (and one’s uneasy recognition of it) as can be imagined.
Is this the beginning of an unexpected era of transparency for these long-toiling veterans? Well, not quite: Nobody’s out here singing about lower back pain. But both records suggest that Mercer and Daniel are contemplating their midlife status as old hands in a field filled with youngsters.
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One thing that’s clear is that they’re determined not to be outdone.
Backing away from pop
Last time we heard from them, each band had polished its once-jagged sound, emphasizing smooth, catchy tunes over the frayed edges typical of indie rock. For 2012’s “Port of Morrow,” the Shins teamed with the pop producer Greg Kurstin (known for his work with Adele and Katy Perry), while Spoon brought on two experienced studio veterans, Dave Fridmann and Joe Chiccarelli, for “They Want My Soul,” from 2014.
Yet frayed edges are all over “Heartworms” and “Hot Thoughts,” as though the groups are proving they’ve still got their freaky streaks.
The Shins album, which Mercer produced himself, opens with “Name for You,” a punchy jam that builds to a crescendo of chirping keyboards and trippy backing vocals going “blah-blah-blah.”
“Painting a Hole” piles on more, including a stomping drum beat and a vaguely Middle Eastern synth line, while flavors of 1980s new wave crop up in “Cherry Hearts” and “Rubber Ballz,” each a vivid reflection of the deep record-nerd knowledge that Mercer played down on “Port of Morrow.”
“Hot Thoughts” has echoes of the past, too — specifically the jittery sound of disco-era Rolling Stones, as heard in the album’s title track and “Can I Sit Next to You,” with its anxious guitar riff and pulpy rhythm-section throb. (A subject for further study: If Spoon is indie rock’s Stones, are the Shins its Beatles?)
But Daniel and his bandmates go wider in the swaggering Dr. Dre-inspired “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” and “WhisperI’lllistentohearit,” a dark electronic track that explodes halfway through into a lashing punk number. Then there’s “Us,” which closes the album with wailing saxophone over a minor-key drone punctured with clattering percussion.
Worrying about the future
Listen close and you can practically hear the frontman digging in his heels, pushing back on the idea of Spoon as a tidy lifestyle accessory. It’s not just the weird sounds that make you think these dudes are considering where they fit in.
In “Mildenhall,” a lovely, country-style ditty on the Shins album, Mercer tells an uncharacteristically straightforward story about growing up the son of an Air Force officer who moved his family to England. We hear how the singer felt like a misfit, then met a kid in school who hipped him to the Jesus and Mary Chain; soon he starts messing with his dad’s guitar, “and that’s how we get to where are we now,” he concludes.
For his part, Daniel sings in the “Hot Thoughts” title track about taking “time off from my kingdom” and offers darker premonitions of “when the world comes crashing and crumbling on me” in the simmering “I Ain’t the One.”
As that line makes clear, Daniel’s and Mercer’s positions atop the indie-rock food chain haven’t insulated them from worry. Neither man is known for weaving politics into his music, but both voice concerns here about where America is headed: the Shins in “For Your Name,” which Mercer told an interviewer is about “the double standards that we put on women,” and Spoon in “Tear It Down,” in which Daniel refers to an effort to “build around a wall us.”
But they’re also considering the threat of obsolescence at a moment when music moves much faster than it did when Spoon and the Shins started out — and when there’s far less space in the cultural conversation for rock bands of any kind, let alone those fronted by guys old enough to have fathered the latest up-and-comers.
At the El Rey in Los Angeles, Mercer apologized for sounding a bit hoarse, saying he’d been doing so many interviews lately that he’d almost talked himself out of a voice. And Spoon had no fewer than five gigs booked at the South by Southwest festival in the band’s hometown of Austin — a sure sign that Daniel knows what it takes to be heard and is still willing to do it.
Just because he’s glimpsed the end doesn’t mean he’s ready for it.
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
☆☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)