To some Our Lady Peace fans, Spiritual Machines is Our Lady Peace’s masterpiece. And to some alt-rock fans of a certain age, Spiritual Machines was the mainstream art-grunge world’s masterpiece, period, no matter the band. Released in December of 2000, it was weighty, sad, dour, cynical, speculative, and only occasionally hopeful. It embodied a very specific person at a very specific time, and as it turned out, there were a lot of those very specific people at that very specific time. Even amongst Our Lady Peace diehards, there are Spiritual Machine fans… and then there’s everyone else.
Such is why it was quite the trick to announce the creation of a Spiritual Machines 2. Far from the band’s most recognizable work, you’d think the Canadian quartet would be more inclined to head for a Gravity 2, or even a Clumsy 2, depending on which era of the band they wanted to rekindle. The original Spiritual Machines marked a turning point for the group — the final swim in a sea of abstract pop that would soon be replaced by the crunchier, more (at the time) radio-friendly hard rock that felt closer to Nickelback than it did the Tragically Hip. It was also the final full album that featured original guitarist Mike Turner, who left during the making of Gravity, establishing the line of demarcation between the two incarnations of the band.
And so it should be said: Making a Spiritual Machines 2 isn’t just a nervy play for some who hold the initial album so near and dear to their teenage souls; it’s also dangerous. Of all the great albums that define a rock band, you never hear of a successful sequel. There was no White Album 2 or Exile on Mainstream 2. That’s not to put the initial Spiritual Machines on such a pedestal. Still, it is to say that even though there weren’t a lot of people who necessarily cared about Spiritual Machines 1, the people who cared really, really cared.
So, how’s Spiritual Machines 2? It’s good. Surprisingly good, even. Take all the conceptual elements away for a minute, and this is easily Our Lady Peace’s most accessible album (and yes, that even includes Gravity). Produced by TV on the Radio‘s Dave Sitek, it often sounds exactly like an album produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, and that’s a good thing, a welcome change and a blast of sunshine into a band that can easily thrive in darkness. Musically, it redefines the Our Lady Peace groove, taking it from basic, straightforward rock to places that even flirt with the hip-hop world at times.
An example? “Run”, which features a Watch the Throne-esque chant that carries the track’s soul and welcomes in a first for the Our Lady Peace oeuvre, colorful horns that will stick in the head for days when coupled with a programmed backbeat that gives the band a grittier texture. Even singer Raine Maida lowers his voice toward a monotone affectation, making for more of a spoken-word vibe here than he’s done in recent memory. He’s always been good at creating moods with his vocal inflection, and he uses that talent here to maximum results.
Speaking of moods, though, the initial Spiritual Machines was its own mood, and the callbacks to it on 2 should be fun for any OLP biographer. “Wish You Well” is a follow-up to “Are You Sad?”, which appeared on the initial Spiritual Machines. If nothing else, this time around, the song is happier than its predecessor, even if it does echo late 1990s/early 2000s Collective Soul. Whereas “Are You Sad?” was at times murderous to listen to (in a good way), with how aptly sad it was, “Wish You Well” features a chirpy refrain rooted in hope, both musically and lyrically.
“Future Disease”, meanwhile, is said to be connected to “The Wonderful Future”, which closed out the original album. Much like the correlation between “Are You Sad?” and “Wish You Well”, the two tracks share certain things — in this case, an upbeat funk that utterly defines where the band was then and where it is now — but the vibe between the two is wildly different. Gone is the sadness of 20 years ago, and in is a futuristic jamboree that provides more hooks than a Bass Pro Shop.
The hooks are the name of the game here. “Stop Making Stupid People Famous” is perhaps the best pure pop song Our Lady Peace has ever produced. Between the infectious guitar riff, a disco, David Bowie-meets-Arcade-Fire groove, and a chorus that sneakily will live in your head rent-free (even after you send it countless eviction notices), it’s an undeniable piece of contemporary accessibility that nobody could have ever predicted a band like this would one day make. The addition of Pussy Riot doesn’t hurt, either, as the female voice grants a smart contrast opposite Maida.
Yet with even all that in mind, the only question that matters is this: Does Spiritual Machines 2 live up to the Spiritual Machines label? The answer is tricky. This is the first time former guitarist Turner has been back since the originator, but he only drops by for one of the Ray Kurzweil spoken word tracks, “RK4.Escape Velocity”. It lasts about a minute, and you don’t really get much out of him, other than triggers for thoughts of the memory of what the band once was and what it is now. Much like Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil’s words are peppered between every few songs, the most startling of which comes at the very beginning when he proclaims about his book that started it all: “The Age Of Spiritual Machines had 147 predictions; 86 percent were correct to within one year.”
So, sure. In some ways, it achieves the goal of giving good use to calling something “Spiritual Machines” again. What complicates things, however, is that on its own, this is a really good, really surprising, and very intriguing album from a band that’s withstood the test of time, not to mention the evolution of a wildly unpredictable record industry — an evolution of which these guys are fully aware as this thing was out as an NFT some four months ago. That said, in a lot of ways, this is smart. It doesn’t revisit the pop-art-grunge-rock it championed two decades ago and instead leans into the type of expanded sounds and futuristic songwriting that the group has ignored for decades. Fair play to them, especially considering how well they do it.
Perhaps the album’s biggest victory, though, is its success at evolution. It’s not easy to take this leap and complete the jump without first landing on your head. For that, as much as anything, Our Lady Peace should be celebrated for Spiritual Machines 2. Allowing brightness into a dark room is hard for anyone who’s ever struggled to open a window. With this album, these four guys drew back all the curtains. And they did it while dancing squarely into the future.
“Life is waiting for you,” Maida sang on Spiritual Machines 1. “It’s all messed up, but we’ll survive.” Spiritual Machines 2 proves that survival can sometimes be worth it.