Released in August 2002, Kill the Moonlight is Spoon’s second independent release via Merge Records. The album put the band’s disastrous major-label tenure at Elektra Records firmly in the rearview mirror, scoring them their first real (if untraditional) hit with “The Way We Get By.” In lieu of wall-to-wall radio play, the song was licensed to a variety of TV shows and films — including The O.C., Shameless, Stranger Than Fiction, Mean Creek, The Puffy Chair, and Hustle — significantly growing the band’s fanbase while validating their in-through-the-back-door mentality. Kill the Moonlight was featured on “Best of the 2000s” lists from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Rhapsody as well as Blender’s “100 Greatest Indie Albums” list.
Why I’ve Been Avoiding It
Discovery fatigue. When I first got into Spoon, I got into them HARD, mainlining Girls Can Tell, Gimme Fiction, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga within a week, then listening to pretty much nothing else for the next month. It was one badass month, but at the end of it, the last thing I wanted in my ears was more Spoon. They Want My Soul got me jonesing again, but I just never got around to Kill the Moonlight. Now, with the band’s new album, Hot Thoughts, right around the corner, I’m finally ready to cross this one off my list.
First things first, if you do not listen to this record with a good stereo setup, be it headphones or speakers with a lot of separation, you are not doing it right. Bandmembers Britt Daniel and Jim Eno, along with co-producer Mike McCarthy, get up to some seriously experimental stuff when it comes to the album’s mix. Take “Don’t Let It Get You Down.” In mono, the song comes off as a fairly standard slice of early-2000s alt-rock. But put your headphones on, and you’ll find that the vocals and piano are isolated entirely on the left channel while the guitar is isolated entirely on the right. The technique elevates the song by ramping up its tension, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere in which the listener never quite knows where the next sound will come from.
The band doubles down on this concept on some of the record’s highlights, often offering a hypnotic element for listeners to focus on while other instruments and effects pummel them from all sides. In “Paper Tiger,” that hypnotic element is the clicking of drum sticks, while “Stay Don’t Go” is anchored by an endlessly looped beat-boxing sample and “Small Stakes” is steadied by a mechanically precise keyboard riff. The effect draws in listeners to an uncomfortable degree, with anything that deviates from that rhythm causing a shock to the system. In “Small Stakes,” distant drum and cymbal crashes make it sound as if someone knocked over all the equipment in the studio, while “Paper Tiger” puts the listener squarely in the middle of a horror-movie soundtrack during its jammy mid-section, in which swelling strings and keyboards sneak up from all angles. It all primes the audience for a catharsis that never arrives, driving the tension through the roof. It’s the band’s handling of that tension, and its eventual release, that comes to define Kill the Moonlight.
Kicking off with “Small Stakes,” the album knocks your feet out from under you right off the bat, establishing an atmosphere in which everything is slightly askew. But it’s followed by “The Way We Get By,” a Ben Folds-style piano-pop track with a major hook and an actual climax that is made even more epic by its lead-in. Spoon then takes it to the next level with “Jonathan Fisk,” a full-on rocker that reaches huge heights thanks to Eno’s masterful drumming and a few well-placed horns. Again, the track hits even harder thanks to its lead-in, “Stay Don’t Go,” which expertly bottles up its tension to prime the explosion of “Fisk.” “Paper Tiger” then builds up the dread once more, putting us back on uneasy footing as we head into the album’s second half. The result is enthralling, with the album’s more experimental tracks building up a wall of tension that its more traditional crowd-pleasers then smash through to rousing effect.
Spoon manages to draw attention to the art of recording itself with Kill the Moonlight’s nontraditional mix, taking listeners far outside of their comfort zone and forcing them to stay on their toes as their conception of what recorded music should sound like is challenged at every turn. The band then scatters its tent-pole tracks like breadcrumbs throughout the record, ensuring that they all hit with maximum force. It’s expertly sequenced, precisely produced, and strikingly intimate. By the time “Vittorio E.” ushers us out of the studio with its gently crescendoing pianos, drums, and celestial backing vocals, you’ll want to dive back in and experience it again.
“The Way We Get By”