The year 1991 was the anno domini of the alternative music scene. On the UK side of the Atlantic, acts such as Ride, Swervedriver, and Slowdive, to name just a few, congregated around their guitar effect pedals and poured out their defining work. Most importantly, the Kevin Shields-fronted My Bloody Valentine unleashed Loveless (1991), arguably the most influential album of the ’90s in terms of its sheer sonic innovation.
Spiritualized formed in 1991 from the still glowing embers of Spacemen 3 – the neo-psychedelia band and brainchild of Sonic Boom (Peter Kember) and J. Spaceman (Jason Pierce). Like Shields, famous for his perfectionist approach and monomaniac attention to analog sounds, Spacemen 3 was also a sonic explorer looking for new, uncharted space. Spiritualized Spaceman became a vessel that would plot its own solitary trajectory on the music scene.
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997), Spiritualized’s third album, was released just as the weather was about to turn, and the storm of Britpop was losing speed. The music was all about melody, lush arrangements, and warm orchestral bliss – an antidote to the self-indulgent and over-confident Britpop scene. This was music for one-on-one, not one for the stadium masses. Essentially built around simple songs, but with sections that would fly off and jazz out, Spaceman would blend gospel and soul music with the MO of a punk band to create his particular vision. To most fans, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is the defining statement. The blueprint of all things great about Spiritualized: ‘white-robe-wearing’ music for the spirit – for healing, consolation, and celebration.
In 2021 Spaceman initiated a reissue campaign of the first four Spiritualized albums, all of which deserve at least a sitting ovation. On the heels of this, the release of the new ninth album, Everything Was Beautiful, fits perfectly. Seven songs, 11 studios, 30 musicians, The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 16 instruments to his credit, and his daughter, Poppy Spaceman as a backing singer, Everything Was Beautiful is a return to technicolor-normal for Spiritualized.
The journey begins with the grand opening of “Always Together with You”. Like Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, this journey starts with a sample-like voice presenting the album. The song then opens with satellite orbiting bleeps and unstable-sounding synths. The chorus is straight out of a ’60s pop album, complete with soulful doo-wop backing singing and finger cymbals. Appropriately, the production sounds scrambled as if it’s an interception of a pop tune floating on lonely radiowaves in space. Duetting with his daughter Poppy Spaceman, the sentiment here is less of being marooned than a celebration of communion and devotion. The song works both as an inviting introduction and a rousing send-off.
The album’s DNA template is found in “The Mainline Song”. Triumphant from the get-go, the song rises all the way to the ceiling and takes the house down. Ancient sounding bells ring it in while a train sounds its horn. Sax, harmonica, and a choir soar while a restrained yet distinct clarinet dabs color. The song is a microcosm of the album; it’s full of every conceivable instrument operating in the same sonic universe at once.
Biting on the tail of “The Mainline Song”, “The A Song (Laid in Your Arms)” ramps it up a notch. Spaceman rhythmically rambles here while enveloped in dominant drumming and awash with layered keys and horns. Midway the guitar dissonantly tears down the set-up and takes all the instruments with it until the drums pick up the reins and Spaceman regains control. In the end, the brass and woodwind instruments charge away with the song. Somehow our ears embrace this chaos. It’s a sonic lecture on how to balance an orchestra.
It’s astounding all the varied ways Spaceman can organize all these sounds and use all these instruments to the best of their ability. On “I’m Coming Home” everyone has a crack at it. This homecoming is unnerving, and every instrument is on its edge. The ambiance is trembling. The song’s dubby swamp slowly intensifies, and we sense there will be no end to it. The phrase “I’m coming home again” reverberates throughout in a repetitious foreboding manner until ominous bells and viola send it off.
Everything Was Beautiful sounds so vibrant and live: it’s at times tender, loose, and comforting and at others muscular, loud, and threatening, but ultimately, every part and voice is held together – they never spiral into oblivion. This album is a grand balancing act of making everything heard and felt and of letting all these disparate instruments come to the fore without overwhelming. It’s the ultimate task of expression. Throughout it all, Spaceman’s beautifully weathered voice is the one calming element that stays with us.