Paris and King Menelaus tore apart two nations when the Trojan War broke out over the hand of Helen of Troy. George Harrison wrote “Something” for Patty Boyd only to lose her to his best mate Eric Clapton who came not with flowers, but with “Layla” and “Wonderful Tonight”. When Kate Radley left long time boyfriend and band mate Jason Pierce to secretly marry The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, Spaceman sat down, shot up a lot of heroin and gave the world Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space.
I know that ever since the album’s release Pierce has refused to acknowledge that the album has anything to do with the breakup, but it doesn’t take much to connect the dots. By all accounts, shortly after the split, Pierce crossed the line from drug enthusiast to drug abuser, drowning his sorrow in heroin to ease his broken heart, and when Ladies dropped in 1997 (packaged in a pill and liner notes mirroring a prescription, mind you), the music world took notice. NME ranked it the album of the year (ahead of a little album called OK Computer) and accolades began to pile up for the group, hailing it Pierce’s masterpiece. Despite his own reluctance to admit his inspiration, the album painted a vivid, beautiful picture of the despair felt by one man and the songs he wrote as a love letter to the woman he lost. So as I sit in the majestic Royal Festival Hall on the south bank of the River Thames, to witness for the first time the album performed in its entirety as part of the All Tomorrow Parties series, I have to ask myself how could this performance not open up long ago sutured wounds?
As the musicians take their places, it is clear that Pierce has taken this performance seriously. By my count there are 36 people on stage comprised of an eight-person string section, six in the brass section and a dozen white-robed gospel choir singers acting as the angels for Spaceman’s magnum opus. As the title track slowly builds, a warm calm rushes through my entire body as the I listen to the first words of the album: “All I want in life’s a little bit of love / to take the pain away.” Spaceman’s beautiful declaration of love explodes off the walls of the room and his frank admission of co- dependency and desire succeeds in never approaching the overly sentimental. Tonight, as intended during the original recording, the song segues into a version of Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love”, as Spaceman quietly purrs, “Wise man say / only fools rush in” while the gospel singers corral his voice and it is utterly devastating making this revamped version somehow superior to the original.
The rest of the evening proves to be very revealing, as it is difficult to ignore which songs some people prefer to leave their seats for a quick trip to the bar or restroom and which songs generate the most enthusiasm from this room full of loyal fans. The snarky counter chorus of “I Think I’m in Love” has the audience in full participation while the epileptic strobe lights during “Electricity” puts the room in an excited frenzy, but the truly triumphant moments of the night for me come during the tenderness of “Stay With Me” and “Broken Heart”.
“Stay’s” woozy lull creates the sensation of drifting through space as guitars twinkle like shooting stars and the string section contributes to this weightless waltz, as Pierce pleads, “Oh babe / I love the way you smile / Stay with me / Smile all the time / Don’t go” and you quickly take sides in this divorce and want nothing more than to hug the lead singer like a younger brother. By the time “Broken Heart” comes drifting through the room like a ghost, Pierce has no energy left to put on a happy face as he laments “And I’m wasted all the time / I’ve gotta drink you right off of my mind / I’ve been told that this will heal given time / Lord I have a broken heart.” The string section, accompanied by Pierce’s creaky voice, gives this song extra dramatic flair, the melody swelling up and down, like a heart pumping blood thru veins; busting with emotions yet always preferring that all too familiar and comforting numb.
When the jangling tambourine of closing track “Cop Shoot Cop” comes strutting in, Pierce has the audience in his hands. At first the song feels like an ice-cold interrogation before breaking out in a full-fledged confession: “ Hey man / There is a hole in my arm / Where all the money goes.” Over the course of the fifteen minute jam, a sassy guitar talks back to a prickly piano line as the song dips in and out of spastic jams, bringing the entire roller coaster ride to a fitting, triumphant declaration of survival.
I cannot think of another record that, over a decade after its release, can still transport me back to the headspace I occupied upon its first listen quite like this one. I remember carefully listening to the obvious wit and tenderness of the lyrics and the gorgeous orchestration that accompanied this raw confession. I have always valued my role as a mere voyeur to the seedy underbelly of the human condition. I enjoy slowly edging myself as close to the precipice as possible without any desire to actually test myself to see if I have what it takes to climb back out. I do not need to spend any actual time in a shooting den to understand what it is like to be alone in the dark abyss with a broken heart because Pierce has succeeded in bringing me there.
He lets us peer through his old photo albums and read his journals. He lets us listen to the sounds swirling around his head and feel the mourning that is suffocating his heart. This album has achieved such a devoted following not because everyone loves to witness the aftermath of a grizzly car wreck, but because of the admiration we feel towards Pierce for how honestly he tells his story. He doesn’t pull any punches or window dress it. There is no doubt things got ugly, but because of his fall, Pierce found his salvation and gave us an album that will forever be a roadmap to finding your way back to the light.