In the world of alternative music, some albums are hyped to legendary statuses, some are trashed and left for dead, and others just fade into obscurity. Armed with hindsight and an appreciation for all things indie, I revisit some of these albums to answer the simple yet important question: did it get what it deserved?
The Subject: Austin indie rock band Spoon has managed to propel itself to some type of alternative rock stardom over the past decade, thanks mainly to the success of their 2002 release Kill the Moonlight. While Moonlight may not have been one of the chart-topping albums, it garnered an immense amount of critical acclaim on its release (an 88/100 on Metacritic is a great achievement in itself). However, what makes Moonlight special is not just the acclaim at its release, but the accolades it has received in retrospect. Rolling Stone ranked it at #51 of its 100 Best Albums of the 2000s, Pitchfork Media ranked it at #19 on its end of the decade list, Rhapsody Music placed it at #5 on their decade list, and Blender ranked it at #49 of their 100 greatest indie rock albums ever. Clearly these publications consider this album to have something special that allows it to stand the test of time. So, I ask: does this album deserve the praise it has received? What is it that makes this album so special, if there is anything?
The Examination: Before I begin, I must be honest: I have never really understood what the big fuss was about this album after the several spins I have given it. In fact, my confusion about this album’s legacy is one of the reasons I started this feature in the first place. I absolutely despised the music and thought of the album as representing everything I hate about the world of indie rock. So, I wanted to get a chance to look back on albums that I thought had been coddled by the indie community and rip them to shreds. However, for the sake of integrity, I ignored all my preconceptions about Kill the Moonlight and listened to it about three times through focusing on only the music. And I must say, my final opinions on it even surprised me.
Moonlight starts off with the sleek “Small Stakes” where punchy synths and a lone tambourine pulsate as Britt Daniel sings in a pseudo-English slack jaw. “The Way We Get By” is an earworm of a track that takes the pop sensibility of post-punk douchebags and transforms it into a stripped piano jig. Standout “Stay Don’t Go” builds off a beat box with bluesy guitars and electronic doodling to create a glossy yet richly detailed soundscape that perfectly combines pop melody and ambient space. The anthemic “Jonathan Fisk” is a straightforward post-punk thud that plays off of the hazed years of teenage bullying to create a sense of urgency or, um, nostalgia? “Don’t Let it Get You Down” builds off the craftsmanship of “The Way We Get By” to make it the other masterfully built pop track of the album. The album ends with the reflective “Vittorio E.” that genuinely approaches some sense of beauty that has eluded the album from the get-go.
The most obvious thing to note about the music of Kill the Moonlight is that it is bare bones, often minimal, and exquisitely produced. This is not so much of a revelation (read an original review of the album, any review), but this is easily the way it stands out from contemporaries. The 00s, in my opinion, are especially famous for many bands that held onto the lo fi 90s aesthetic or the shoegaze wash of sound made famous by My Bloody Valentine and the like. Particularly towards the end of the decade, it seems as if every other indie band discussed has some form of noise/dream rock sound with shoddy production. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it explains why Kill the Moonlight immediately stands out.
However, at the same time, it is the bare bones, stripped song structures that makes this album somewhat underwhelming. There is much enjoyment to be had from this collection of songs, and the attention to detail put into the production even warrants multiple listens, but the simplistic structures of these songs make the listen somewhat labored at parts. Also, it is this “back-to-basics” mentality that makes Moonlight’s legendary status somewhat confusing. Making a great album is one thing, but albums with as much accolade as this one should have some form of forward thinking that makes it important for the development of rock music. It might just be me, but all the great milestones of rock music are albums that looked towards the future rather than refining the past. The Velvet Underground and Nico is not an alternative rock staple because it was a throwback to Dylan or something; it is a classic because it took drone elements, unique guitar tunings, and cockward structures and created a counterculture within the counter culture of the late 60s. Television’s Marquee Moon, a classic without such a buzz name, is remembered because of its innovative guitar work, not simply because of its great songwriting. What I am trying to say is that there is no element of Kill the Moonlight that compares to such classics. Cool synths? An interesting aesthetic, but nothing groundbreaking. Guitar work? To be quite frank, nothing special going on here. Earworm melodies? Perhaps, but if writing catchy songs is a progressive practice, then half of the songs currently on the radio would also be “innovative”. Crisp production? Since when is the studio itself a musician? I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it.
And yes, I am possibly being too harsh on poor Spoon by comparing it to these milestones of pop music. However, this is the close to the status that these reviewers granted it when they pinned it as one of the best of the past decade (and all time in some instances). Ignoring 60 years of rock music context, Kill the Moonlight is a great album that everyone should listen to and enjoy because it is genuinely enjoyable. But applying the praise and legacy it has developed over time, there seems to be some disconnect between the stardom and the sound. The closest the album gets to being revolutionary is on tracks “Stay Don’t Go” and “Paper Tiger”, where the sound actually transcends the “stripped down” gimmick and creates truly unique soundscapes from fluttering synths and simple percussion. However, these instances are secondary to the other qualities of the album I have discussed before (pop sensibility, production, great songwriting). As a result, there no true eureka moment that makes the album transcendent.
As for the rankings this album has received on these lists, I think this can be explained by a difference in philosophy on what makes a great album. The dichotomy that develops is between immensely enjoyable albums that lack in innovation and decent albums that are esoteric in their experimentations. And, when ranking these two types of albums, I will almost always fall in favor of an album that tries to push the boundaries and is flawed as a result than an album that sticks to the status quo and succeeds. This is where others may differ from me in opinion, yet I am always in awe of an album that attempts to change rock forever, even if it fails. That being said, a truly bad album with ambition is still a bad album, yet when looking at middle-of-the-road albums that are flawed but very ambitious, I will always hold them in high regard. In the case of Kill the Moonlight, I would define it as a great album with limited innovation. Because of this, I can think of dozens of albums from the 00s that are better than Moonlight that have been ranked lower than it on these lists. So, I would say that Kill the Moonlight deserved the praise it received on its release, but does not deserve the legendary status it has received in retrospect.
The Verdict: A great album that deserved the praise it initially received but not the accolades of topping some of these end of the decade and indie rock lists. This is not an attack on Spoon, who probably just went out to make music they enjoy and not to change the world. Rather, this is an attack on the critics that overhyped this album to a status that it just doesn’t deserve. Also, I should explain why I say at the beginning of the examination that I am surprised at my response to this album. At first, I used to hate this album with a burning passion and did not consider it good in any context. However, after listening to it again with a clear head I realized just how enjoyable of an album it is. As a result, my attacks are on the legacy of the album, not the quality of the music on its own. Either way, I’m sure others will agree or disagree with me on my examination in some way, so please respond and tell me why I am right or why I suck.