Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Record Review: Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light

Spiritualized's music has been so good for so long that it can be easy to overlook when it has been genuinely, unequivocally great. Save for the canonized monument that is 1997's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating Space, the Spiritualized catalogue tends to get lumped into a recursive mass of drones, hymnals, and orchestrations, bigger than any individual release—let alone any one song—could hope to contain. This perspective, though not entirely misplaced, undercuts the more obvious strides that leader Jason Peirce has made over the last two decades: His transition from the volatile synergy of his former band, Spacemen 3, into the minimally tranquil confines of Laser Guided Melodies; the harmonization of that same white light/white heat dichotomy with Spiritualized’s live album Fucked Up Inside; to, eventually, the mostly orchestral pageantry of Let It Come Down. Peirce’s awe in the face of life’s everyday manifestations has grown forth simultaneously with an ambition that has, in the wake of Ladies and Gentlemen, threatened to collapse everything from his songwriting (the gospel overload of Amazing Grace) to his physical well-being (documented painfully on Songs in A&E). In short, I didn’t think Peirce could possibly have it in him anymore, whether that’s mentally, physically, or psychologically. But Spiritualized’s seventh album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, is, against all odds, the grand reconciliation of all that is powerful, frustrating, and ultimately transcendent in Jason Peirce's work.

Peirce has a well-documented history with abuse (Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, a Spacemen 3 demos collection, not-so-subtly disclosed). But there’s a long line of musicians who have utilized addiction to fuel creativity without much consequence, and Peirce was able to parlay his vices into some of the most invigorating music of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. More recently, however, his transgressions have taken a noticeable toll, and not just on his artistic output. Peirce was reduced to life-threatening levels of pneumonia while recording Songs in A&E, and in the years since that album’s release he was struck—perhaps unrelatedely, but who can say at this point—with a degenerative liver disease. For this, he underwent eight months of chemotherapy during the mixing of Sweet Heart. What’s incredible about the results, particularly in the wake of the flat-line ruminations of A&E, is the way Peirce’s typically heartbroken lullabies, death-rattle invocations, and defeatist parables can, in this context, sound so triumphant. It’s been years since Spiritualized evidenced such natural—as opposed to coaxed, often chorally—verve, Peirce’s incendiary space-rock explorations yielding something grand yet pointedly intimate, a song cycle as turbulent as it is serene, as personal as it is paradoxically inspiring.

After a brief introductory segue which nods toward the album cover’s baffled allusion to the effects of Peirce’s medicinal stupor, advance nine-minute single “Hey Jane” tears forth with a pre-Summer of Love rock ‘n’ roll snarl, motorik rhythm, and stabbing guitar chords, as Peirce invokes the name of one of rock’s oldest unattainable females only to shun her (“Hey Jane, when you gonna die?”) for more spiritually fulfilling relationships. His is a cyclical, masochistic kind of emotional sacrifice—a “Falling in Love to Make Music to Break Up To,” or some such pattern of pain by way of satisfaction. Peirce is a conflicted narrator, but really, what could be more relatable than blindly putting yourself so far out there that you risk everything that’s even remotely important to you? “In our haste to find a little more from life/We didn’t notice that we’d died,” Peirce nonchalantly offers on centerpiece “Headin’ for the Top Now,” as a boiling cauldron of feedback, piano, and percussion threaten to make good on his proclamation. But of course he keeps up the pursuit (as we all tend to do), and on the absolutely heartrending “Freedom,” sighs as if in second person, “Freedom is yours if you want it/You just don’t know what you need/Made up my mind to leave you behind/You just don't know what you feel.”

It would come off as all too depressing if the ache of anxiety in Peirce’s voice didn’t hint at more intriguing future possibilities. In the meantime, however, he continues to find himself reduced to appreciating the transient moments, the in-between times when your heart is once again open to the possibilities afforded by space and perspective. Yet as in life, the latter continually gets in the way. On the swooning “Too Late,” Peirce drops wisdom that he’s no doubt accumulated over the years, sighing that “It’s too late/There’s something I’ve learned/Love lights the flame when there’s hearts it can burn.” Later, over jutting strings, he tells the title character of “Mary” how she’s better off avoiding issues of the heart (“Mary, take your big red heart and turn around/They’ll make you insane”) only to set the insignificance of certain such circumstances into stark relief on the following track, “Life Is a Problem,” nakedly confessing, "I won't get to heaven/I won't be coming home/I will not see my mother again/'Cause I'm lost and I'm gone and this life is too long and my willpower's never too strong."

Eventually, however, the pain leads to numbness and the numbness leads to resignation, and as the album ends with “So Long You Pretty Thing”—one of the single greatest Spiritualized songs, period—the journey feels as if it has come full circle. Throughout, Peirce continues his career-long conflation of religious and emotional states of atonement, and across the slow-build intro of “So Long You Pretty Thing” it seems as if he’ll once again end things on a dire note, crying out, “Help me Lord/Help me Jesus/‘Cause I'm hurting inside.” But soon enough the clouds part, as if the second coming has commenced, and every implication of the band’s name comes flooding forth atop a refrain as emotionally draining as it is soulful and uplifting: “So long you pretty thing, God save your little soul/The music that you played so hard ain't on your radio/And all your dreams of diamond rings, and all that rock 'n' roll can bring you/Sail on, so long.” For an artist who has spent a good deal of his career wallowing in the merciless waters of the strung-out, and who, just a couple minutes prior, admits, “I got no reason to believe in anything,” the sentiment somehow transcends the limited purview of our collective experience. Without fail, each and every time it comes to an end, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, in its own self-contained, purgatorial fashion, has helped me believe anew—believe in the essence of love, of friendship, and of art. This is music that proves there is life beyond the present, hope after the fall. [InRO]

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