The Spaceman Who Came Down to Earth
Flyin’ saucers rock ‘n’ roll. Sputnik (satellite girl). Telstar. Mr. Spaceman. 2,000 light years from home. Third stone from the sun. A space oddity. Set the controls for the heart of the sun. Outa-space. Venus and Mars. Satellite of love. Life on Mars. Cosmic dancer. Dark side of the moon. Starman. Mothership connection (star child). Rocket man. Unfunky U.F.O. Saturn. Calling occupants of interplanetary craft. Orbit. Planet Claire. Walking on the moon. Blast off. Space age love song. Planet rock.
When you are so rock and roll that you just can’t stand to be on this drab, mean little earth anymore, space is the place to be. Space is escape and speed and the chance to build a new planet in your own image. But space is also about isolation and coldness, shutting yourself down to protect yourself against the rigors of the trip. You might even have to go into suspended animation, or pace yourself with some chemicals. Because that’s escape too.
And no one in modern music knows how to escape like J. Spaceman. He bolted Spacemen 3 and took most of the band with him to form Spiritualized. This group took Spacemen 3’s drone-trip aesthetic and married it to a way-out romantic sensibility on their debut album, 1992’s Lazer Guided Melodies. And maybe none of these songs had much more to them than their pretty surfaces and J.‘s “woe is me” voice, but it didn’t matter much; listeners gaped in awe and waved goodbye as Jason and his crew blasted off to go entertain the spheres.
Each successive album by this band has taken the group farther and farther out into the universe: 1995’s Pure Phase was tougher and grander and more ornate than their first record, and boasted an infinitely dense event-horizon sound courtesy of different mixes in each speaker. It didn’t hurt that Sean Cook and Michael Mooney had been added, to form a tighter nucleus around other original members Kate Radley and Mark Refoy. While Pure Phase was slightly sneered at by the British press—ye gods, what truly great British record hasn’t been sneered at by the British press?—people with ears saw where they were going with this one: it was more soulful, more wounded, and just plain more rock and roll than anything they’d done before.
Two years later, Spiritualized checked in with a big, huge breakthrough record, which was widely assumed to be a mission statement. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space was massive in size, in scope, and in the number of sounds happening on every single track of the album. Sixty orchestral conspirators joined the fuzzy guitars and orbiting keyboards, and these songs showed true rock ballsmanship: sixteen minutes of free-jazz freakout on “Cop Shoot Cop”, Jason’s obliteration of his own persona on “Come Together” (“Now Little J’s a fuckin’ mess / And when he’s offered just says yes”) and the creepy spacewalk dispatch of the title track. It was messy and pretty and tragic as all hell, especially when it became known that Kate Radley had left the band (and Jason) to go marry that creepy Richard Ashcroft.
But the focus was on Jason, J. Spaceman, the slightly chilly Captain Picard of this mission. What nobody seemed to notice was just how great the band called Spiritualized had become, which was why their next move was to release a 95-minute document of how slamming a live rock group could be when bolstered by an onstage orchestra and a full gospel choir and some of the greatest songs you’d ever want to hear. The cover of Live at Royal Albert Hall showed the eponymous concert hall from an alien visitor’s point of view: “if a sound this awesome can be made on this planet, perhaps we shouldn’t obliterate the place just yet.”
So of course the Spaceman had to escape again. He fired Cook and Mooney and quasi-drummer Damon Reece—they left to go form Lupine Howl—and kept only Thighpaulsandra and Raymond “Moonshake” Dickaty from the live album as conspirators. He and new main collaborator John Coxon (half of Spring Heel Jack) lured some new folks into the studio, but the sound wasn’t big enough for what he wanted, so he added more: violins and cellos and tympani and soul singers and flutes and all the crazy sounds bouncing off the satellites in his mind. Let It Come Down was eagerly anticipated by a lot of people who were wondering just how far out Jason Pierce would go this time.
But he fooled us all by coming home. You won’t necessarily get that from the opening track, “On Fire”: it sounds just like a lot of other Spiritualized songs despite including seemingly every single musician in England somewhere in the mix. But there’s something to Jason’s ever-more-soulful delivery this time around, and he actually whoops for joy a couple of times. Could he actually have found the depth he always wanted?
To judge from the next song, the monumental “Do It All Over Again”, the answer is yes. This is a simply stunning recreation of the classic Phil Spector “Wall of Sound”, from the shimmering violins and kettledrums all the way to the 10,000 repetitions of the chorus. I’ve always wondered why everyone always talks about the Beatles and the Beach Boys being the be-all and end-all of music perfection when both were clearly terrified of Phil Spector—but our boy Spaceman makes a classic roots move by paying respect to the man who invented orchestral pop.
The only quibble is that “Do It All Over Again” is in stereo rather than sainted mono, but I’ll let it pass this time. This is one of the most beautifully produced albums released in the last ten years; you can almost feel every single instrument—quite an accomplishment considering that the classical sounds were recorded at the same time in the same room, just like old Uncle Phil used to do it. These sonics ground garage-o-centric rockers like “The Twelve Steps” and turn simple ballads like “Out of Sight” and “Stop Your Crying” into statements that are both universal and intensely personal at the same time.
The personal nature of these songs is what really sets Let It Come Down apart from anything Spiritualized has done before. It’s as though J. Spaceman has realized that once you’re in deep outer-space, the only way to escape is to come back home. There are no coy “Little J” references here—we’re getting pure, unadulterated Jason Pierce in his full ruined glory. Yes, there are still corny I’m-so-high jokes (“The only time I’m drink and drug-free / Is when I get my drinks and drugs for free”), but they are few and far between.
Pierce is reveling in everyday life now, and it suits his musical vision just fine; with every layer in the mix he adds an inspiring grandeur to the everyday act of being human. At the end of “Don’t Just Do Something”, a voluptuous seven-minute piece about the utter excellence of being able to just sit in a chair all day, all the intertwining Beach-Boyish vocal lines finally drop out to reveal what he’s thinking about in that chair: “I’m gonna drown before my ship comes in / And I forgot to ring my mum again / And life ain’t good without cigarettes”. So normal it’s scary. Track after track, we get these invitations to understand a real live person. And the music and the man are so charming that we happily accept.
This is a slow album that reveals itself a little more with each listen. I didn’t catch the brilliance of Dickaty’s long saxophone solo during the churchified electronics of “Won’t Get to Heaven (The State I’m in)” until the seventh listen, and I’m still not sure I fully understand all the subtleties of “Anything More” or “The Straight and the Narrow”. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to stop writing about this album now and just go listen to it again. You should do that too.
// Notes from the Road
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