A song-by-song deep dive into Spoons’ new wave classic.
I recently found myself relegated to the dustbin of cultural relevance in the most millennial of ways: a post in a closed Facebook group (peppered with IDKs, incomplete sentences, and random punctuation) that referred to me and a group of music writers of the same vintage as “OLDIES.” It’s the first of what I expect will be many overt ageist acts of passive aggression I’ll face as my zeitgeist-factor (age + number of new releases I “just don’t get”) grows. At the risk of sounding all “kids, respect your elders” and adopting back-in-my-day-isms, I’m going to proceed with this semi-nostalgic/quasi-historical analysis of the album that effectively shaped my musical taste for life when I was ten years old: Arias & Symphonies, the sophomore full-length from Burlington, ON-based new wavers, Spoons.
Back in the day — because there once was “a day” and 2019 is no longer it — synthesizers and drum machines were a musical revolution, fundamentally reinventing popular music. The first wave of new wave synth-pop was cresting circa 1982: the previous year, Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”, Soft Cell’s take on “Tainted Love”, and Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” redefined what pop music would sound like in the coming decade. New Wave’s electro-pop wing was shaping up to be disco’s distant second cousin, more cerebral than hedonistic, but no less rhythmic and beat-driven. Domestically speaking, few musical acts found themselves riding that wave better than Spoons. Arias & Symphonies was not only the sound du jour but that of the quartet coalescing, each member playing off the others’ strengths. The songs gelled perfectly, tied together with famed UK producer John Punter’s work behind the boards.
Before getting to deep into this album, it’s worth asking whether or not this is my own version of revisionist history, as I’ve spent the better part of thirty years playing this record front-to-back and romanticizing it past the point of objectivity. A song-by-song break down suggests that this isn’t the case. No revisionism can alter Spoons’ musical chronology. For all citations and accolades assigned to “Nova Heart”, the juggernaut stand-alone single that precedes Arias & Symphonies, the band still found it difficult to escape the deeply prog-rock tendencies of their Daniel Lanois-recorded debut, 1981’s Stick Figure Neighbourhood. They bury it well on “Trade Winds”, the album’s underrated instrumental opener. Keyboardist Rob Preuss’s bubbling synth undercurrents not only sets the song’s tempo but the overall tone for the coming album: moody, mildly dramatic, and wildly ambitious.
Key changes, claps of thunder, and some super squiggly synth lines threaten to take the whole thing over the top, but as “Trade Winds” builds to its inevitable crescendo, it perfectly collapses into the syncopated beats and walking bass line of “Smiling in Winter”. Sandy Horne’s sound and style are as signature as that of ex-New Order bassist Peter Hook and she’s never gotten the credit she deserves as being an integral component of Spoons’ sound. Her work throughout Arias & Symphonies is memorable, but on “Smiling in Winter” particularly, it is indispensable. Horne and drummer Derrick Ross are the solid rhythmic backbone from which Preuss and guitarist/vocalist and principal songwriter Gordon Deppe’s melodies radiate.
Lyrically, “Smiling in Winter” sticks to the album’s cool detachment and themes of change and searching for one’s own voice in a sea of conformity. It’s also the perfect musical set-up for the blizzard of beeps and blips that is “One in Ten Words”, Arias’s most optimistic and lyrically dense song. As far as subject matter goes “One in Ten Words” is that once-in-a-lifetime song about misinformation and communication overload that continues to resonate more now than it did over three decades ago. Horne and Deppe bounce words and vocals off each other like seasoned pros. It’s a likely nod to “Don’t You Want Me”’s call-and-response vocal structure but Spoons do it their own way pulling off what will be the brightest, most bubbly song of their discography until 1984’s “Tell No Lies”.
“No Electrons” rounds out Arias’s opening salvo, a poignant song Deppe describes as being “for anyone who thought they didn’t fit in” in his 2014 memoir, Spoonfed. For a thirty-plus-year-old new wave pop song, it continues to hold up remarkably well. The same can’t be said for “No More Growing Up”. It was never a favourite and one I was always compelled to skip, but now it feels like a necessary evil between the album’s opening montage and it’s crucial, climactic second act. After “Trade Winds”, “No More Growing Up” is the record’s shortest song but still could have ended at the 2:06 mark in order to get to the heart of the album much sooner: Arias & Symphonies’s title track and its spiritual predecessor, “Nova Heart”. The former is the perfect alchemy of Spoons’s prog-rock heritage and new wave future, seamlessly manoeuvring between Deppe’s rollicking, rocking guitar work, Preuss’s swelling synths, and Horne and Ross’s blisteringly tight playing. The latter, forever stamped as Spoons’ signature song, doesn’t fail to please even condensed down to an album-friendly running time from the original EP’s dance-ready 6:33. Even though “Nova Heart” only predates the bulk of Arias & Symphonies by a few months, it’s ultra-slick production makes it stick out from the rest.
“Nova Heart” is perfectly sequenced at the start of Side B (I could never flip the vinyl over fast enough) if for no other reason than to prop up Arias’s second and third sins, the lyrically literal “South American Vacation” and proggy crawl of “Girl in Two Pieces”. Time and taste have led me to be much kinder and open to both tracks, but thematically, I find they take Arias & Symphonies too far off course before its final tracks — the finely rendered rocker “Walk the Plank” and “Blow Away” — bring it back on course. As far as closers go, “Blow Away” is the complementary epilogue to “Trade Winds”’s foreword, slowing the pace and toning down the new wave touches before ramping up to a dizzying mid-song prog-rock tour of duty unlike any other on the album. And yet, it works in context, offering Arias & Symphonies dimension and shape that its few of its synth-pop contemporaries — Canadian or otherwise — were able to muster.
It’s not perfect by any stretch, but Arias & Symphonies is miles better than a record with One Massive Hit Single® has any right to be. For me and many others who continue to follow the band’s music and tours today, it is that special gem, a one-in-ten-thousand record that leaves a lasting mark on your psyche, your style, your soul. Yours may be On the Beach, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, or Funeral; mine will always be Arias & Symphonies.