Believing is art 

No easy way out for Spoon

What if everything you believed was wrong? And not just everything you'd been taught by others, but everything you'd spent 30 years figuring out on your own. What if you woke up one morning, looked at your life and realized all the things you thought were important were actually the cause of most of your problems?

Girls Can Tell, the forthcoming album from the Austin, Texas, band Spoon, describes the fragile, crumbling world that exists in the wake of such discovery. Led by singer/songwriter/ guitarist Britt Daniel, the trio details the frustration, resentment and despair that come with having your vision of the world dismantled, and then questions whether this dismantling means having to abandon that vision or whether it can actually reinforce it.

It's the band's third full-length, and though they've produced moments of angular and invigorating indie-rock brilliance in the past, they've never before captured such a huge, confusing and contradictory idea so coherently on an album. It's worth mentioning that though Spoon have garnered a modicum of critical acclaim, they've hardly made a dent in the public consciousness. In fact, back in 1998, there were all of eight people at the Atlanta stop of the tour supporting their previous full-length, A Series of Sneaks. It's also worth mentioning that they were dropped from their major label deal just four months after the release of that album and were so bitter about it they recorded a 7-inch single that lit into their A&R rep by name.

Those events appear to have come hand-in-hand with a roll-call of relationship woes for Daniel and sparked his existential crisis. Often, such revelations bring on the worst kind of cynicism -- the hopeless, resigned, soul-sucking moans of so many late-20s, early-30s types who are bitter at the world for not delivering on a promise they thought it had made them. And it could be argued that's actually what comes out of Girls Can Tell. After all, there's no lack of bitterness here.

"Things everybody would say/Believing is hard/Believing is art," Daniel sings to open the album's signature track "Believing Is Art," not sounding entirely convinced yet that believing is, in fact, art. But with jagged, Keith Richards-style riffs escaping from his guitar and his bandmates -- bassist Josh Zarbo and drummer Jim Eno -- laying down an insistent and propulsive groove behind him, Daniel begins to hint at another possible response to his disillusionment: an almost impossible idealism.

The evidence of this idealism, however, is often difficult to discern. On "Anything You Want," Daniel sounds resigned, shrugging his shoulders at a dying relationship. "If you and me is so right/Why's it the same thing every night?" he asks, while an organ tries in vain to put a happy spin on it. Then, on the next track, "Take a Walk," he fires a furious fuck-off, presumably at the same girl, after she sends him packing.

"Lines in the Suit" creeps behind some disquieting piano, further elucidating Daniel's disappointments. "How come I feel so washed up/At such a tender age?" he asks in fragile falsetto. "It could have been easier," he continues, acknowledging that the path of least resistance -- not believing -- might have left him happier.

The beauty of much of the album, though, is that it's both pointed and nonspecific about Daniel's struggles. It's not just his work or his girl, it's that, as he sings on the album's opening track, "everything hits at once." It's that it all hasn't worked out the way he thought it would and it's making him question the very foundations he's built his church on.

In the end, though, there's a sense he's coming around to the idea that "believing is art," that holding fast to your vision of the world may be worth whatever price it comes at. And it's not about what you believe in, just that you believe in something absolutely and steadfastly. What defines art -- not only in things like music, painting, writing and film but also in work and in relationships and in the way we lead our lives -- is conviction; conviction that we are doing things for the right reasons, damn the consequences.

And it's a rare fucking thing. It's rare because "believing is hard" -- buying into the whole thing is hard because often it seems like everything is stacked in such a way that believing and living your life according to those beliefs is a futile row to hoe. And Spoon doesn't try to sell us otherwise. It's no coincidence that in the refrain, "Believing is hard/Believing is art," Daniel's breathy enunciation of hard and art sound nearly identical. The fact that believing -- giving a shit, sticking to your guns -- is hard, is part and parcel of what makes it art.

There's a scene toward the end of the film A League of Their Own where Geena Davis' character, the star of a professional women's baseball team, tells her manager, played by Tom Hanks, that she's quitting because it just got too hard. Hanks responds, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."

And that's what Daniel and his bandmates suggest on Girls Can Tell. They offer no easy answers or shortcuts, no pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. Instead, both in their words and in their taut, frazzled sounds, they invite us only to take heart and joy in the struggle itself. Believing is hard, but this trio believes that hard work is its own reward, even if it doesn't always feel like it. They've got to; to believe anything else is to give in to disillusionment and quit the good fight altogether. And the mere existence of these songs is proof they haven't quit. Despite the heavy evidence to the contrary, despite being dropped by major labels and girlfriends, despite playing to near-empty clubs, despite feeling hollow and lost far too often, Spoon still believe they're making the right decisions. That's art.

Spoon play the Echo Lounge, Sat., Feb. 17. Show time is 9 p.m. Tickets are $10. For more information, call 404-681-3600.

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