Spiritualized: Songs in A&E

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.


Songs in A&E;

Label: Spaceman
US Release Date: 2008-05-27
UK Release Date: 2008-05-26

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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