Fischerspooner Get Deeper and Darker on ‘Sir’

Fischerspooner spearheaded the electroclash craze at the cusp of the millennium. Although initially dismissed in critical circles as art school fodder, they successfully captured the Zeitgeist and won a fervent following with their 2002 debut “#1.” Core members Warren Fisher and Casey Spooner, from whose names the band derives its composite moniker, expanded their duo to an electronic indie pop group for 2005’s “Odyssey.” Having always fancied itself more of a performance art collective than a band, Fischerspooner has taken on numerous forms, including dancers, a choreographer, and an “attendant” in its lineup. After a tepidly received third record and a hiatus of nearly a decade, the collective is back on the scene with a star-studded new album.

Sir,” the duo’s first record in nine years begins with a barebones pulse of dark, plodding synths. As spectral strings swell and fade, the titular lyric beckons the listener with a coy solicitation. With “Stranger Strange,” the tone of the upcoming affair is established. This is an album about courting mystery, seeking thrills, and celebrating indulgence. A few moments in, skittering beats and helium crescendos have erupted into a full-fledged cavalcade, replete with backup singers chiming in, “feels so good” — and it does. The ensuing performance is a number that might seem farcical if not decidedly tongue-in-cheek, consistent with Fischerspooner’s signature brand of camp and kitsch.  

“TopBrazil” is all party poppers and confetti, dancefloor-ready with the punch and groove of Fischerspooner’s finest moments. The nostalgia is tastefully tempered, and the refrain, “I know it’s just a game we play,” preemptively dismisses any charges of reverting to a dated format. After all, the electroclash phenomenon, amid which Fischerspooner first stormed the scene, was defined by its retro sensibilities: the sounds of the eighties and the nineties as reimagined in the aughts. Now, in 2018, electroclash itself seems to have become the retro element. Still, it comes across less like a throwback than a timely repackaging and repurposing.  

“Togetherness” achieves poignancy from guest vocalist Caroline Polachek’s soaring, mellifluous melodies, while Spooner’s lyrics portend, “The deeper you go, the darker it gets.” Indeed, the album’s narrative arc takes a dark turn; the trajectory, however, is neon and shimmering. Vulnerability and unease is met with abandon and revelry, and the resonating sentiment is one of carefree optimism. The central motif is captured in a particular line, “I’m a man learning how to be a man’s man, man.” It should be noted that a particular “man” features prominently in “Sir.” R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, whom Casey Spooner once dated, co-wrote and produced the album.  The project brought Stipe and Spooner together years later and provided a creative outlet at a time when both men were experiencing hardships. There is a theme of vulnerability palpable in the song title, “I Need Love,” in the reduction to childlike simplicity evinced by repeated utterances of “you’re so beautiful,” and in the desperate entreaty, “help me, help me” in the penultimate track. The bulk of subject matter, however, regards intimacy and lasciviousness. This is expressed sometimes with rather jarring brazenness, as in “Get It On,” when Spooner ebulliently chants, “Na-na-na-naked,” or in “Butterscotch,” which features a gratuitous solo passage of percussive, heavy breathing. Other times, it takes the form of double entendre, as in the refrain, “we come together sweetly,” or in the charge, “you’re sick,” uttered twice, each iteration seemingly conveying a different idea.  

Whether it’s alienation and frailty, or transgression and promiscuity, the speaker’s resolve is explicit and consistent, succinctly expressed in one track’s eponymous declaration, “Have fun tonight.” Fischerspooner has always made dance music, and “Sir” marks no departure. It merely provides a backstory to justify the celebration, arguably making the dancing meaningful, and more valuable. There is a self-awareness that permeates the record, showcasing itself at moments when musical elements mirror lyrical underpinnings. The silly singsong chorus of “Everything Is Just Alright,” and the intentionally awkward robotic voice that interjects “Have Fun Tonight” seem to acknowledge the relative absurdity of unchecked optimism. Flickering arpeggios in “Butterscotch Goddamn,’ create the sonic equivalent of sprinkles on a sundae. In the closing track, spoken word passages impart a sense of documentary realism, while isolated, scattered notes hint at a distressed speaker’s struggle to connect the dots. Holly Miranda’s angelic vocals are panned so as to hover just above the mix, suspended in the ether.  

Musically, “Sir” delves into little uncharted territory. “Dark Pink” is on the peculiar side, coming across as a British invasion-era rock and roll song given the eighties instrumental treatment in millennial fidelity. The apex of the record from a production standpoint is likely “Discreet,” in which cascading vocal lines mesh into lush harmonies, while pitch-shifted vocals stutter and spurt to hypnotic effect. Overall, “Sir” captures Fischerspooner doing what they have always done well, with as much vigor and vitality as at the cusp of the millennium when they debuted with the legendary #1.  All the band’s trademark tricks are at play. The usual, infectious octave-shifting synth lines are plentiful. Percussive accents and sound-candy flourishes are artfully peppered throughout. The music achieves great lengths from its use of open space. The songs are all pointed and uncluttered, short snippets of pop perfection. There is beauty in the elegant simplicity with which the songs derive their tectonics from bleeps and thuds.  

“Sir” is an album of unprecedented emotional weight for Fischerspooner. It culminates with the atypically dark and personal “Oh Rio,” in which Spooner bleats, “sometimes dreams have to die.” As bleak as this may sound, it takes on a different light in the context of the album. After all, so much celebration is bound to engender ennui at some point. And letting go of dreams makes it possible to revel in the moment; dance to the beat.  

Sir” is available Feb. 16 on Apple Music.