Compared to Amazing Grace, this is a majestic return-to-form for everyone’s favorite tortured genius. Just don’t compare it to the earlier records.
An acquaintance of mine once quipped, “I want bad things to happen to Jason Pierce so that he makes good records.” I think he’s on to something. Indeed, ever since he was a young shoegazer comprising one half of Spacemen 3, Jason Pierce (AKA J. Spaceman) has always epitomized the tortured artist stereotype to a tee, his greatest compositions seemingly fueled by despair and loneliness we can scarcely imagine. “Heaven, it ain’t easy / You know I’ve got the scars to say I’m here,” he declares on the oddly catchy “Baby I’m Just a Fool”, and god knows I believe him.
1997’s Ladies & Gentleman We Are Floating in Space was, of course, the magnum opus in the Spiritualized oeuvre, an emotionally exhausting masterwork that somehow managed to reconcile the competing influences cycling through Spaceman’s mad-scientist palette: atonal free jazz, symphonic space rock, krautrock-inspired drones, blues. It’s no coincidence that the record was reportedly inspired by a difficult breakup with occasional Spiritualized member Kate Radley. “All I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away” is an especially telling mantra.
The finest Spiritualized moments sound as if this unholy marriage between drone-fused psychedelia, religious gospel (most emphasized on Let It Come Down), and self-pitying lyrics was decreed directly from the heavens. Spaceman is not an innovator, but rather a prophet, and the pain he suffers is simply so he can carry this music to earth. If Jesus were alive today, some say he’d listen to Creed, others Sigur Rós. I say he’d be deep into Spiritualized, Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997 blasting through his noise-canceling headphones.
Okay, so let’s bring this to the present. Songs in A&E is the British artist’s sixth studio offering with the title refering to Spaceman’s lengthy stint in the Accident & Emergency War in 2005. He nearly died, I’m told. According to Wikipedia, Spaceman “contracted advanced periorbital cellulitis with bilateral pneumonia with rapid deterioration requiring intensive care and c-pap for type 1 respiratory failure.” (I know, right?) Appropriately, the finest songs on Songs in A&E are also the most desperately harrowing. “Death Take Your Fiddle”, for example, is like a post-apocalyptic “Sister Morphine”, and I suspect directly inspired by these health issues. The song features a traditional folk melody, buried beneath a haunting layer of breathing effects, sputtering feedback, synth, and, later in the song, a vocal choir. “I think I’ll drink myself into a coma,” Spaceman mumbles weakly, “And I’ll take any pill that I can find / But morphine, codeine, whiskey, they won’t alter / The way I feel now death is not around.” As usual, Spaceman expresses no interest in distancing himself from the drug mythology that has surrounded Spiritualized since Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To appeared as a Spacemen 3 album title. Fans will surely remember the creative prescription drug packaging used for Ladies & Gentleman We Are Floating in Space. As if he’s running dry on album art ideas, Songs in A&E carries a cover sterile enough for a Rite Aid aisle, and an enormous inlet with photos of 24 different syringes. Fitting.
So, while Spiritualized circa 2008 carries the same basic mood and effect as Spiritualized circa 1995 (somewhere between misery and numbing drug lust), the instrumentation is certainly more streamlined. Where there once were guitar phase-loops, throbbing organ drones, horn flourishes, and enough reverb to drown a horse, there is now a considerable focus on more conventional guitar sounds and intense orchestration. “Sitting on Fire” makes its presence known as one of the most affecting Spiritualized songs in recent memory. The start-stop acoustic verses are driven by Spaceman’s haunting, voice-cracking moan; “So hard to fight when you’re losing,” he declares, and I’m reminded of his equally desperate vocal performance on “Broken Heart”. The song leads into some utterly blissful orchestral swells reminiscent of the build-up on “Let It Flow” from Pure Phase. Similarly, “The Waves Crash In” and “Borrowed Your Gun” are both deceptively simple melodies in waltz time, with heavenly string climaxes suitable for a Tindersticks record.
I imagine that J. Spaceman grouped “I Gotta Fire”, “Soul on Fire”, and “Sitting on Fire” together on the album simply because the awkwardly similar titles amused him; the songs themselves have little in common. The textures of “Sitting on Fire” are even more wrenching following “Soul on Fire”, easily one of Spiritualized’s weakest singles in recent memory. The track is an unfortunate declaration of melodic blandness, propelled by an endlessly repetitive chorus with adult contemporary leanings as dull as any Coldplay single. By contrast, “I Gotta Fire” is a groove-oriented, mid-tempo rocker, all the more engaging with its creative wah guitar effects. The song, along with rockers “Yeah Yeah” and “You Lie You Cheat”, is more effective than just about anything on 2003’s Amazing Grace, which ultimately felt like an impulsive, flash-in-the-pan response to the garage rock revival movement (The Strokes, The Vines, The White Stripes) with little in the way of interesting songwriting.
Overall, Songs in A & E merges the familiar, sometimes disparate elements of past Spiritualized recordings, yet rarely comes across as a stale or uninspired career conclusion -- likely due to the intense emotion that Spaceman puts into just about everything on here. The album’s length, however, is somewhat bothersome. At 52 minutes, it feels even longer, and the six pointlessly scattered orchestral interludes don’t help. Plus, sleepy, lullaby-style tracks like “Don’t Hold Me Close” and “Goodnight Goodnight” sound like Spiritualized by the numbers. But these are minor complaints. The album is approachable, cleanly-recorded (since, after all, the leftover Spacemen 3 devotees likely abandoned ship a decade ago), yet doesn’t sacrifice Spaceman’s defining ideals, which may or may not include excessive pharmaceutical drug imagery. At any rate, it’s satisfying enough to get me to dust off my old Spiritualized records, while also wondering what Spaceman’s future holds. And if that includes another near-death catharsis to jumpstart the creative process... that’s up to J.