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We get high in back seats of cars
We break into mobile homes
The narrator is speaking on behalf of young people who get high, get into trouble, and tend to drift toward anything locomotive.
More notable than the delinquent activities mentioned in the first two lines of this song is where those activities take place. Sure, the young people get high in cars, but also, most likely, in a lot of other places…so why mention the cars? Furthermore, if they're going to break into a home, to rob or maybe live in it, why mobile homes?
We'd like to think that it's simply because they're mobile. The actions of the first two lines identify our narrator as one of a bunch of young hooligans, while the venues serve as symbols of a bigger idea. When we hear about homes in songs, for example, they're often more than just "houses." A home can represent one's foundation, or refer to an entire town or city. Perhaps that's what's so appealing to Spoon's narrator about the metaphoric mobile home; it's a home you can take with you when you leave. (Of course, breaking in doesn't necessarily mean you've got the keys and can drive it.)
Obviously the car is also a symbol of mobility. But, importantly, the young people in the song are in the back seat of the car, rather than in the front seat driving somewhere. So, though they are attracted to things that are mobile, they never actually move. Perhaps they would be in the front driving (and hopefully not getting high) if they could somehow lug their figurative "homes" along with them.
We go to sleep to Shake Appeal
This is the first of three references to Iggy Pop, and more specifically his band the Stooges.
The first two lines show us that the collective narrators ("we") in the song are all talk; they seek out things that can take them places, but they never actually go anywhere. The reference to the song "Shake Appeal" reinforces this theme and also helps us further define who the "we" is.
"Shake Appeal" is a song by Iggy Pop and the Stooges (off their third album Raw Power) that lives up to its title: it appeals to people to shake themselves. "Shake appeal" is similar to sex appeal (even Iggy gets them confused at the end of the song), but this song is about a simple desire for movement, especially the violent kind ("Shake appeal / baby with your fists so tight…baby gotta have a fight").
One thing is sure. It's certainly not a sleepy song. It's a fast-driving, ear-splitting punk tirade. It definitely tells us something about the narrators that they go to sleep to the sound of frenetic movement.
We go out in stormy weather
We rarely practice discern
Okay, we get it; these kids like to go against the grain. They go out when most people are coming in, i.e. during stormy weather. Sounds like an exciting but very limited way to live. The second line confirms the speaker's awareness of this.
The narrator is boasting that he and his crew thrive in chaos, and take pleasure in what other people find offensive or frightening. But like the idle scenes in automobiles, there's not a lot of truth in these lines. Taken in the context of the song, it seems more like this bunch of young punks is just looking for the next cheap thrill.
The second line is a little more puzzling, especially considering the word "discern" is not commonly used as a noun. It most often appears as a verb that means, according to Merriam-Webster, "to detect" with sight and the other senses, as well as "to recognize or identify as separate or distinct."
This second definition of the word sure sounds a lot like the definition of its synonym, "discriminate." You might not use these two words interchangeably in casual conversation, as they have different connotations, but they definitely do share a definition, namely "to distinguish, or differentiate" (Merriam-Webster again).
Why use "discern" over "discriminate"? (Well, other than for the obvious reason that "discriminate" doesn't fit into the rhythm of the lyrics.) We know that punks do distinguish themselves from the rest of the world—they discriminate—in the sense that they define themselves as outsiders. But as for the rest of the population, they do not discern the innumerable differences among different people. They simply discriminate them all as one whole "other" or "enemy." They don't even think about the fact that there might be other kinds of outsiders.
Another interpretation is that Britt Daniel is criticizing the homogeneity of commercialized punk culture, whose participants rail against conformity even as they follow the same trends. In other words, they say they're different, but they all act the same. "We rarely practice discern" might really be saying, "we all act the same as each other."
We make love to Some Weird Sin
We seek out the taciturn
This is the second reference to an Iggy Pop song, which has a theme similar to "The Way We Get By." It's about apathy and boredom facilitating recklessness, one of the defining characteristics of early punk music and culture.
"Some Weird Sin" isn't a Stooges song. It was on Iggy's second solo record, Lust for Life, co-written and produced by David Bowie. There are many similarities between Spoon's "The Way We Get By" and Iggy Pop's "Some Weird Sin," most superficially the concept of "breaking in." But there's also the concept of finding solace in "sin" as a response to boredom, much like the people who get high in cars and break into mobile homes.
Another thing to consider is that the things they do out of boredom are "Weird" sins, not Christian sins. Even though the song is talking about sex, it's certainly not talking about the Christian concept of original sin. Maybe that's why Daniel uses the phrase "make love" instead of something more vulgar. The line could be implying that love can't be a sin. Here Daniel shows a distaste for organized religion that also rears its head in the song "Jonathan Fisk," later in this album:
Religion don't mean a thing
it's just another way to be right wing.
As for seeking out the taciturn, why might these restless kids seek out people who are characterized as reserved and "disinclined to talk"? Maybe they desire the company of people who are more walk than talk? Or maybe they're simply seeking the company of people who pose no threat to their idle lifestyle.
Remember you may have your own different, and equally valid, interpretation.
You sweet talk like a cop and you know it
You bought a new bag of pot, said let's make a new start
Here's an example of boredom inspiring weird sin, the main theme of this song.
You sweet-talk like a cop? What? If there's anything cops don't do, it's sweet-talk.
Here's what we imagine this scene to be. The narrator converses with a stranger and is looking for flirtatiousness, but things don't go so well; he feels like he just got a parking ticket instead. But when this stranger reaches into a pocket and extracts a bag of marijuana, our narrator has a change of heart, essentially saying, "Hmm, maybe we got off on the wrong foot."
Think of these lines as a snapshot of a scene that exemplifies what the lyrics have been implying all along: a feeling of boredom, a hint of anti-authoritarian attitude, and finally some weird sin to cure that boredom.
We put faith in our concerns
Fall in love to 'Down on the Street'
We believe in the sum of ourselves
Here's the third and final Iggy Pop reference, plus the idea of power in numbers.
"Down on the Street" is the opening song on The Stooges' Fun House.
With lyrics like "deep in the night I'm lost in love," you might think this is the first reference in Spoon's song that actually kind of makes sense, unlike falling asleep to "Shake Appeal" or making love to "Some Weird Sin." But you don't need to listen too closely to "Down on the Street" to hear that it is a violent, animalistic song of uninhibited lust, not a depiction of any sort of human romance or love.
As for putting faith in his concerns, the narrator has already shown us that the things that concern him and his peers include getting high, having sex, dancing, and breaking into mobile homes, in addition to making a point to never actually go anywhere. But if enough people share a set of values, no matter how marginalized or absurd, they begin to seem like some kind of movement.
Individual insecurity becomes devout faith in the larger group: "we believe in the sum of ourselves." This last line could mean a more individual "sum"—instead, it could refer to the "sum" of different events in an individual's life that define, or add up to, him or her.