Alright, so by now you’ve no doubt heard the news: Jason Pierce, aka J Spaceman, has ditched the grand orchestral flourishes and swelling gospel choirs of Spiritualized‘s past and traded them in for oh-so-trendy garage rock and Julianesque vocals. Gone is the wall-of-sound, the taking-drugs-to-make-music-to-take-drugs-to vibe, the tremolos and phasers, the grand, heartbreaking sanctified ballads. It’s all gone Detroit. It’s all gone distressed jeans.
Well, not exactly.
Anybody who has any history with Spiritualized will feel very much at home with Amazing Grace. The garage rockers are here for sure, but they are no different from the garage rockers that graced Pierce’s albums in the past. Think “Electricity”, not Is This It?. The wall of sound is very much intact, as are the one-chord balls-out rockers. There are gospel choirs, and sleigh bells, and tympanis, and vibraphones. We’re not exactly talking Stooges here.
But Amazing Grace is a different kind of Spiritualized album, nonetheless. Essentially recorded in three weeks time at Rockfeld Studios last October, Amazing Grace was recorded live, with the band learning the tracks on the go. While there were overdubs, Pierce wanted the songs on Amazing Grace to sound as close to the live studio recordings as possible and kept the multitracked embellishments to a bare minimum.
The problem with Spiritualized is they’ve never been quite as transcendent as they should be. I mean, when songs come standard with angelic choirs, and 101-piece orchestras, you’d expect some huge emotional moments. But Spiritualized seem to have trouble consistently hitting those highs. All the ingredients are there, but for some reason the results never quite live up to the mixture. Unfortunately, the same holds true for Amazing Grace. It is a Spiritualized album in every sense of the word: bombastic, beautiful, energized, dynamic, and for some damn reason, just a little emotionless.
Initially, all the garage rock rumors seem to be true, as the album opens with two straight one-chord-and-a-cloud-of-dust rockers: “This Little Life of Mine” and “She Kissed Me (And It Felt Like A Hit)”, the latter title turning the old Crystals song title on its head. They’re both pretty invigorating. Roaring, bluesy harmonicas collide with searing feedback and incendiary wah-wah stabs, all mixed together with Pierce’s sneering antagonistic vocals. It’s all very Raw Power, but it’s nothing trendy. Pierce has been doing these kinds of songs for years. From there, Amazing Grace glides into more familiar Spiritualized territory with the gorgeous “Oh, Baby” and the equally stunning “Lord Let it Rain on Me”, which lyrically contains the standard pseudo-spiritual lines, “Jesus Christ, look at what you’ve gone done / 200 years looking down the barrel of a gun / Jesus Christ when you comin’ down again?”
Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell J that the easiest way to ruin a perfectly good indie rock record is to throw in a little free jazz. Someone must stop this trend. Tell it to Blur, who marred an otherwise perfect album with a free jazz freakout on this year’s Think Tank, and tell it to Radiohead, and tell it to Jason Pierce. Enough already. Perhaps a sticker on the sleeve would suffice: “Buyer Beware—One entire track on this already short album is a ridiculous free jazz experiment in dissonant noise. It’s called “The Power and the Glory”, and it is very unpleasant.” Fortunately, it’s also short.
The LP’s most beautiful and effective moment, however, comes quite early on (track three). “Hold On” opens with the trademark wall-of-sound, then gently fades into only acoustic guitar, piano, and Spaceman’s ravaged, tortured vocals: “Hold on to those you hold dear / Hold on to those that you love.” The mood doesn’t last long however, as the track builds right back up to the grand gestures of its opening, before quietly falling back into minimalism. It’s an old Spiritualized trick: build it up, and take it down, build it up and take it down. It’s Pierce’s version of modern rock radio’s loud/quiet/loud formula. But it’s still effective.
The real oddball of the record, though, is “Cheapster”, which is almost a direct melodic copy of Bob Dylan’s ‘60’s classic, “Motorpsycho Nitemare”. Pierce even sings it with a Dylanesque sneer. It’s a fun and frivolous cut and it rocks along just like Dylan’s early electric stompers did, but it’s an odd track for a Spiritualized album.
If you’re a Spiritualized fan, Amazing Grace will do nothing to disappoint you, but outside of “Cheapster”, it holds few surprises. While it’s not up to the level of some of Pierce’s best work, it’s still a strong and satisfying piece of artistry. If you’re looking to get into the band for the first time, though, you’d be better off picking up 1997’s Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating In Space, Spiritualized’s greatest, and most essential recording.
// Notes from the Road
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