Montreal’s Rae Spoon has an incredible work ethic that’s really a bit mind-boggling to keep up with. Since debuting in 2003 with Throw Some Dirt on Me and releasing five albums since then, this transgendered singer-songwriter has steadily moved from the musical sphere of twangy country and into the realm of indie electronica, never sacrificing their talent for crafting a catchy hook and for pulling the listener in deeper with layered lyrics of almost-love and loss. True to Spoon’s biography on their website, I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets is, to date, the most electronic album Spoon has made, continuing in the path begun by 2008’s superioryouareinferior and 2010’s loveisahunter of fleshing out pretty pop songs with sometimes discomfiting electronics and painful, yet wholly poetic, personal insights. Spoon tours almost constantly and I’ve been lucky enough to catch them twice here in Winnipeg over the last couple of years. With another North American tour on the immediate horizon, complete with a Winnipeg date, I don’t think I’m off the mark at all when I say that that’s a super impressive workload as well as the makings of a career that has inspired fans from all over the world and continues to do so. Once a fan of Rae Spoon, it feels very much like you’re on the journey with them.
I am happy to report that Spoon’s work has picked up again from the slight disappointment, in my mind at least, of loveisahunter, and returns to the form last seen on career highlight superioryouareinferior. I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets is that beautiful thing, something that makes me pay special attention to an album – on the surface it’s beautiful, melodic, upbeat, often happy, and even glossy. Dig deeper at the lyrics, and they counter that musical contentedness with doubt, tentativeness, and isolation. Like superioryouareinferior, the emotional terrain Spoon traverses is often laid out in the form of actual physical terrain and particularly Canadian geography and natural phenomena. Here that natural Canadiana is complemented by references to iconic English geography in mentions of the Thames and London more generally. And, like usual, what’s best about this Rae Spoon release is their voice, easily able to navigate the trickiness of doing country music without sounding like a kitsch retro act and perfectly suited to this low-key kind of electro, humanizing and making real the synthetic sounds behind the words.
“Ocean Blue” serves as an album opener with force, announcing to listeners that Spoon’s country tendencies have been abandoned, at least for the duration of this record. An upbeat synth figure bounces lightly along, while a bass part, suggestive of the depths of the titular ocean, pulses and injects the light with something altogether darker. Spoon’s lyrics tell of the alienation of a strange environment that finds its metaphorical counterpart in water. Yes, the ocean is a symbol for something much more intimate: “Strange to each other and lost in a country/Lost in our bodies with nothing to hold us/We drifted together out past the breakers.” The water is enveloping, overwhelming, and foreign, and so is the emotional geography of the relationship that Spoon’s narrating. The engulfing nature of the water isn’t the only thing on their mind here, however: the weight of a partner’s “secrets” pulls Spoon to the ocean floor and there they sit, waiting to be found. Ultimately, dwelling on this relationship is dangerous for Spoon: “If I look for the memories I get tangled on them/If I hold on to you then I start sinking.” This time, the water takes control, with Spoon losing both themself and their partner to the vastness of the ocean.
The theme of alienation continues on the next track, “Crash Landing,” and particularly in its repeated refrain of “We don’t belong to each other/We don’t belong to anyone.” This lyric could be interpreted in many ways, but I think of it as being about the brevity of hook-ups and fledgling relationships that don’t last. There are certainly emotional connections in these instances, but mostly they are cases of “burning up and going” as Spoon sings; the cause and result of not having a plan. The title track deals with someone close to Spoon who has disappeared from their life, whether physically, emotionally, or indeed both. The unsaid questions hang in the spaces between refrains of “I can’t keep all of our secrets”: What am I to you? Do you miss me? Why did you abandon me? Lines like “Maybe when I’m nothing I will understand where you are now” and “Call with no answer” illustrate the bewilderment and frustration of having a shared history with no one to corroborate its existence. “Are You Jealous of the Dead” is lent ghostliness by the signature vocal waver that Spoon is known for and contains a particularly lovely couplet comparing the dead to the living: “They are written and punctuated/We are messy and unplanned.” Again, the exhausting wringer of life, its relationships and failures, and its jarring connections with death, is focused on here to melancholy effect.
“Ghost of a Boy” explores, for Spoon, a new soul-influenced sound that is evidenced by an introductory and background vocal line that is presumably composed of Spoon’s electronically altered voice. It could be argued that this unusual component of the song’s sound is like the ghost of its title, but for me, the warbling and somewhat challenging line adds soul-like warmth to an otherwise sparse and eerie song. Perhaps this ghost isn’t chilling or creepy at all, but comforting and welcome. “Ice Caps,” the closing number and song most reminiscent of the themes explored on superioryouareinferior, feels as cool and relatively unpopulated as Canada does. With mention, obviously, of ice caps, in addition to northern lights and “cosmic rain” as well as the ocean floor inhabited on “Ocean Blue,” this song compares the slowly disappearing polar ice caps to a lover that slowly fades away and becomes strange to Spoon. The line “There’s less of you, but there’s more at the bottom of the ocean floor” illustrates exactly how a relationship erodes over time, becoming smaller and more insignificant until there is nothing left.
A sad and beautiful album dedicated to themes of isolation and love lost, I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets is triumphant in – and through – its pain. Spoon is definitely a master of taking the remnants of life’s disappointments, along with its small pleasures, and transforming them into songs that still manage to uplift even though they’re rarely about happiness. Both coolly electronic and warmly emotional as well as a testament to Spoon’s songwriting skill and their ability to switch genres effectively, I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets rewards active yet patient listening and is catchy as hell to boot.
Rae Spoon will be playing at Gio’s in Winnipeg on February 24.