There are two songs on Spiritualized‘s new album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, which recall the fried, reach-for-the-sun-or-die-trying splendour of Jason Pierce’s one undisputed masterpiece, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. “I Am What I Am” and “Mary” come as a consecutive pair, and they are glorious. Free-jazz skronking rockets through the former’s glammy stomp; on the latter, plaintive strings pierce through a stately pocket symphony.
More often, Sweet Heart… is a terrestrial affair, reining in the old mores and paranoia and sounding pretty joyful about having nothing much to celebrate. That’s not to say it isn’t a highly accomplished work from a true visionary; rather, it shows Jason Pierce has changed as a songwriter. Of course he still speaks the language of religion from the perspective of a non-believer—he’s not going to heaven unless God’s his chauffeur; Jesus is someone you pray to for salvation, redemption, forgiveness. Of course that makes him cling to clichés other artists would have outgrown long ago—”Love lights the flame when there’s hearts it can burn” and all that guff. And, of course, there remains a patina of druggy imagery in which he is sinner and saviour rolled into one.
“There is an elegant simplicity to parts of the album some listeners will mistake for tiredness”
But alongside all this, there is an elegant simplicity to parts of the album some listeners will mistake for tiredness, and that’s just not correct. You notice it most in the string arrangements, which I was pleasantly surprised to learn flow from Pierce’s pen. Familiar ingredients are gently transmuted into mystical, revelatory elements, as if he were an alchemist. On “Get What You Deserve”, a song whose bottom-end has been pretty much lobotomised (a carryover trait exhibited by all of the Spacemen 3), a faintly Eastern string motif weaves in and out of a misfiring organ drone, creating a sweetly woozy ambience. When John Harris interviewed Damon Albarn recently, the journalist picked up on the titling of “Caramel”, saying it was “seemingly referring to the brown goo produced when heroin is heated up”. On Sweet Light…’s more experimental cuts, there is a similarly opiate vibe.
Elsewhere, these strings are more innocent and playful, as on the soulful “Little Girl”, which could pass for a poppy Yo La Tengo number. “Life Is A Problem”, meanwhile, channels Ágætis byrjun-era Sigur Rós, in particular the palindromic arrangement of “Starálfur“. I smiled upon discovering that parts of this album were recorded at the Sundlaugin studio owned by that Icelandic post-rock outfit.
You might think, at this point, Sweet Light… is an album with an identity problem. It’s switching constantly between Pierce’s beloved 1960s pop, and the space rock he pioneered at the end of the 1980s. The lyrics betray his earlier taste for hedonism whilst also casting him as the family man (two of the songs feature the vocals of his eleven-year old daughter, Poppy).
“Pierce is visualising himself at death’s door, and he’s fine with it”
Well, no. This is a work that’s unafraid of swapping things around, but which essentially operates within one framework throughout: Pierce is visualising himself at death’s door, and he’s pretty much fine with it. The key lyric comes near the start of “Little Girl”: “Sometimes I wish that I was dead,” he sings, “‘Cause only the living can feel the pain.” From that mental image he conjures forth different strands of his life to date: the “Play loud and drive fast” mantra in the liner notes, as in the jangly opening track, “Hey Jane”; the cocky charmer waltzing through “Too Late”; the dying man on an IV drip, petering out infinitesimally, on the gospel-tinged closer “So Long You Pretty Thing”. These are Pierce’s very own seven ages of man, and, he now admits, he revels in all of them.
There are moments of supreme tact and subtlety on this album he has never even thought to attempt previously: a velvety, parping tuba here; a very British take on motorik there. There are also moments where he totally lets go, and you cannot begin to think of this being music assembled painstakingly at home by a man whose liver had disintegrated (the thoroughly mental “Headin’ For The Top Now” is the best example of this). And so this isn’t anything like, in aggregate, that previous masterpiece, but it is an album true to the spirit of that same creator, fifteen years on. And that means it’s a unique set of flavours we should all taste, at least now and again.
Spiritualized’s latest album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, was released on 16th April 2012, on Double Six Records.