Accounts of Spiritualized bandleader Jason Pierce often read like Saturday Night Live‘s “Who’s More Grizzled?” sketch, in which contestants compete in categories of “War”, “Hard Times”, “Bear Attacks”, “Ailments”, “Dead Wives”, and “Coal Mining”. While to my knowledge Pierce has never seen combat or come face to face with a bear, his reviewers and interviewers routinely rattle off an assortment of hard times, such as drug addiction, breakups, and pneumonia. These difficulties and dark phases are part of the Spacemen 3/Spiritualized story, but there’s no good reason for Pierce’s music to be understood solely as a catalogue of hard knocks.
Pierce has said Sweet Heart Sweet Light is influenced by middle-period albums from artists who are beyond their youthful years and making “these great pop albums, these great collections of songs that you play and in the end you say, ‘What a beautiful album.'” Though there’s no shortage of beauty or orchestral decoration on Sweet Heart Sweet Light, the influence of a middle-age precipice on those pop trappings gives the album a rare and yes, spiritual, power.
Survival is one of the primary themes of Sweet Heart Sweet Light. In the lead single “Hey Jane”, Pierce asks, “Hey Jane, where you going today? … Run so fast you get no place.” The song, nearly nine minutes long, plunges ever forward like its title character, its first half underpinned by a drum beat out of Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows.” As a single and first proper album track, “Hey Jane” is a bounding start compared to the loping “Sweet Talk”, the first song from 2008’s Songs in A & E. Whereas Songs in A & E dealt in frank terms with corporeal frailty, Sweet Heart Sweet Light wants to kick something into gear, be it life or death. Pierce punctuates the extended, instrumental middle section of “Hey Jane” by modifying the initial verse with “Hey Jane when you gonna die?” The concluding “Sweet heart / Sweet light / Sweet heart and / Love of my life” might be Jane’s ascension.
“Little Girl” follows, similarly concerned with the transition of troubled life into peaceful death, and even more sweetly sung than “Hey Jane”. Pierce’s backup singers and a string arrangement temper grim lyrics into something more romantic. The strings swell throughout “Too Late”, which might prove to be too straightforward a love song for listeners who prefer their Spiritualized to stay in the doldrums.
Although there are flashes of Spiritualized past in each song, “Headin’ for the Top Now” is the song that most noticeably links to Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997) and the wash of noise on songs like “Cop Shoot Cop”. However, “Headin’ for the Top Now” is less dynamic and its repetitive instrumental cycles don’t sustain enough interest for the song’s eight minute length. Conversely, the melodic “Freedom” begins calmly and simply with acoustic guitar, piano and voice and stays rooted in those even as other embellishments enter the mix.
The only major misstep on Sweet Heart Sweet Light is “Mary”, a song that might be described as an anemic take on the Rolling Stones’ “Angie” and lacking that song’s interesting subtext. Though Pierce is normally aware of how to employ his increasingly weathered voice to fit a variety of musical modes, on “Mary” he sounds stuck in a bad take.
At this point in Sweet Heart Sweet Light, the lyrics having compared carrying on with life to learning to accept death, Pierce closes the album with a plea and a benediction. Those inclined to seek only the darkness of Spiritualized should pay attention to how “Life is a Problem” augments and updates earlier songs from the band, specifically from Let It Come Down (2001). “Life is a Problem” builds onto “The Straight and the Narrow’s” admittance of being weak-willed and “Anything More’s” evocation of a clock winding down. This must be a conscious quoting of Let It Come Down, as Pierce also repeats lyrics from “Won’t Get to Heaven (The State I’m In)” but takes them out of that song’s bombastic gospel context.
“Life is a Problem” is, among other things, a direct appeal to Jesus, using a collection of metaphors for grace similar to those in Iris DeMent’s clever gospel song mash-up of “Mama’s Opry”, in which she formed a chorus from the names of classic numbers such as “The Gospel Ship” and “He Will Pilot Me”. Here, Pierce asks, “Jesus please be my automobile … Jesus please drive me away from my sin,” and “Jesus please be my aeroplane … Jesus please meet me the day that I die.” While some have called these pleas “mock-churchy,” I wonder how anyone would identify the mock elements or test the songwriter for sincerity? Is it perhaps the critic’s own sensibility that bristles at the song’s struggle for salvation?
Over the past three decades, Pierce has had a lot to say about Jesus in several of his songs with Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, but never with the earnestness found on Sweet Heart Sweet Light. Closing track “So Long You Pretty Thing” opens in the least cynical way imaginable: a duet with a child, a technique also used effectively on Swans’ My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky (2010) and more recently on Damien Jurado’s Mariqopa (2012). In “So Long You Pretty Thing”, Pierce sings, “Help me Lord / help me Jesus … Help me Lord / help me Father,” praying for sustaining belief. After the singer’s attention to his soul has run its course, the song transitions into an extended chorus that plays like twilight for vile bodies. Pierce claims Sweet Heart Sweet Light is the kind of pop album a singer makes when youth is well behind him, and that might be true, but the album’s search for deliverance is timeless and ultimately uplifting.