Spoon's Greatest Hits Album Traces The Band's 25-Year 'Underdog' Story
Ten minutes into 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter Parker rides the subway to school. He's just experienced the thrill of his life fighting alongside several Avengers in Berlin, though now, a few months later, he's being ghosted by his hero, Tony Stark. But his spirit can't be broken. We know this because underneath the crippling mundanity of his daily high-school life are the familiar, jaunty strums of Spoon's 2007 song "The Underdog."
It sounds good, though the version in the film is missing one key element: Britt Daniel's signature vocals, cool yet raddled, delivering the song's enduring refrain ("You have no fear of the underdog / That's why you will not survive"). Coupled with bright trumpets, warm acoustic guitars, and crisp production from the whimsy-minded Jon Brion, "The Underdog" has long been one of the storied Austin band's most popular songs. It's their second most-streamed Spotify cut (33 million plays and counting) and has soundtracked key scenes in Cloverfield, Horrible Bosses, and I Love You, Man, in addition to Peter Parker's commute. Even so, "The Underdog" nearly ended up a b-side.
"We almost left that song off the record because we didn't think it fit in with the reverb-heavy dub record that most of [2007's] Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was," Daniel told MTV News. These are the kinds of career-spanning conversations he's having now, as Spoon celebrates a quarter-century of being indelible indie-rock staples.
They've made so much music — five EPs, nine studio albums, hundreds of shows played — that they understandably had a hard time narrowing it all down to a single-disc greatest hits collection, Everything Hits At Once: The Best of Spoon, out July 26. "The Underdog" is on it, of course ("a no-brainer," Daniel said). So is a subtly political new single called "No Bullets Spent" that Daniel called "a fantasy of the best way to get rid of [an oppressive master]," as well as likewise essential band cuts "I Turn My Camera On" and "Don't Make Me a Target," both heard on TV shows like Veronica Mars and Chuck throughout the past two decades.
The story of Spoon, as pretty much every narrative will lay out, is the story of consistency. The band has weathered several shifting lineups, though Daniel and drummer Jim Eno have anchored the operation since its 1993 inception. Their first album, Telephono, dropped the same year current Spider-Man Tom Holland was born, and after a brief yet tumultuous experience on a major label ("We became a bit of an underdog," Daniel said), Spoon continued to gain momentum simply by putting out releases that were reliably good. Their 2002 breakthrough Kill the Moonlight is the one that changed it all, and though that may seem like a century ago in our relentlessly accelerated culture where last week's cliff-wife discourse liquifies into this week's Robert Redford meme lesson, it still matters. Just ask Pete Buttigieg.
In February, a video of the South Bend, Indiana mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful playing "The Way We Get By" ahead of a college event went viral. Daniel later saw the clip when Mac McCaughan, Merge Records founder and Superchunk maestro, sent it his way. "It was cool," he said. "I got a kick out of that when it happened." But back when Mayor Pete was still writing Harvard columns about Radiohead and Dave Matthews Band, that song found its way onto the TV screens of nearly 9.5 million Americans thanks to The O.C.
It also appeared on the show's accompanying soundtrack Music From The O.C. Mix 1 alongside Phantom Planet's era-defining title anthem. The follow-up to that soundtrack is the key document, a full-blown baptism of early-aughts indie acts like The Killers, Death Cab, Interpol, The Walkmen and more, for burgeoning tastemakers. But on the first cut, the bouncy piano of "The Way We Get By" helped cement Spoon as an essential new-millennium rock act. "Once we recorded that one, I was like, 'That's got to be the single,'" Daniel said. "It was sort of our calling card for a little while."
The studio experimentation littered across Kill the Moonlight largely sounds as inspired in 2019 as it did in 2002. When Daniel listens back to it now, he hears "some great ideas" and "really good drum sounds." The hits it holds, along with the funky, sparse "I Turn My Camera On," from 2005's Gimme Fiction, reveal Spoon at their commercial and creative peak in the aughts. This decade, however, they've spent a little more time going galaxy brain: the warbling "Inside Out," their most-streamed song on Spotify at a cool 38 million spins, is purely keyboards on keyboards. It's the Dr. Dre-inspired, boom-bap imitating They Want My Soul cut that Daniel used as a guidepost once they began work on 2017's rollicking, atmospheric album Hot Thoughts.
And then, before they recorded new song "No Bullets Spent," Daniel bought a new guitar and started doing something a bit more unexpected: some light, tasteful shredding. "I never was one of those guys who was really big into guitar solos, but I just started enjoying it," he said. Two small moments ended up on the new track after chipping away at some noodling ideas. "Sometimes the most creative way to deal with anything in music is to do one little bit, listen back, hear that new bit and then think, what comes next?" he said. "When I saw that Lil Wayne documentary, he seemed to be writing a lot of his verses that way, which I thought was cool."
It's tempting to imagine future Spoon recordings that find the band taking the same approach to long improvised guitar freak-outs that they consistently have to rhythm and groove. But that's not "No Bullets Spent," a tight four-minute protest song. "I don't want anybody to get the impression this is going to be [Television's] 'Marquee Moon' or anything. It's a 10-second solo, but it is a little new ground compared to the last record."
Now, there's a new record, and though it's made up of the old hits, listening to Everything Hits At Once (rejected titles: Atom Bombs and Blunt Razors, All the Weird Kids Up Front) in 2019 is an edifying experience. Before the band decided on a final single-disc tracklist, Daniel revisited Spoon's entire discography, which was, as you might imagine, "a trip." The collection is enlightening simply because once you know Spoon, you begin to hear Spoon out in the world — and vice versa. They're mainstays in the musical ecosystem that exists outside of the merely "indie" or "alternative" realms. The experiences can be as ordinary as noticing a song passively — say, as Spider-Man takes the train to school — or as you belly up to the bar and order your first beer.
It happens to Daniel, too. "I like hearing our music when it comes on," he said. "I'll be in a restaurant or a bar. It does happen, and I like it." That feels like a victory all its own.