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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Early Album Review

Songs in A & E (in stores May 27)
Streaming now on Myspace

* * * *

Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman, essentially the only permanent member of Spiritualized) and his music has been some of the most complex, anxious, and interesting of the last 20 years. From the shoegaze spirituals of The Spaceman 3, to the 120 musician Wall of Sound of I'm on Fire, the only constant is that his songs are all obsessed with spirituality. Sometimes ironic, though mostly brutally honest, his lyrics concern an unrepentant, guilt-ridden addict who wants to believe, but is afraid that he's not strong enough to make it even if he does; perhaps best expressed by a line from Ladies and Gentlemen We're Floating in Space; "Lord I have a broken heart, but I'm too busy to be humble God."

As if Pierce needed any more, I guess you can call it inspiration part of the reason that its taken him over 5 years to release this album, is that he's been chronically and seriously ill; it was reported that he was on his death bed in July of 2005 after it was found he had Legionnaires' disease. Pierce went back to record, but was interrupted a number of times by relapses, at one time taking a 2 year hiatus, and by having to try and regain his artistic frame of mind. In fact the title, Songs in A & E refers to the Accident and emergency ward or British hospitals.

After finding a 1929 gibson, which he describes as something of a intervention by fate, Pierce began touring doing acoustic shows, and then was further boosted by being asked to do the soundtrack for the recently released Mr. Lonely (he sings a duet with director Harmony Korine's wife).

This is probably Spiritualized's most accessible album. Gone are the free-jazz freakouts, or wailing guitars. It takes the stripped down element of his last album, though takes off the edge, and mixes it with a few of his signature orchestral embellishments. Pierce still sounds purposefully detached, but there are times where he does get emotional (relatively). At times he does sound tired, and worn down, adding a rather unsettling authenticity to the work. Sitting on Fire is just plain heartbreaking and the last track, Goodnight goodnight are quite devastating because of this.

Lyrics have never really been the most consistent part of Spiritulized's music. Sure, 1997's I Think I'm in Love is a masterpiece of subversive pop lyricism, but other times they're either too deadpan, or too vague.

In fact, the album has two motifs from Spiritulized works; fire and the lost son ,be it the Prodigal or Icarus. This album could be seen as a retelling of the Prodigal son only as Pierce could tell it. His songs are about being far from home, trying to fill a void by playing with fire and consistently being burned. Thinking he's finally free, of guilt and sin and god, only to be broken down by guilt. The climax, the reunion of father and son, is Borrowed Your Gun, where the prodigal son who has figuratively borrowed his father's gun and killed everyone he loves, returns to his father because he's out of bullets, frightened, broke and broken hearted. And the lullaby which ends the album, in this context, where the father, is talking his Icarus like son down, from his exercise in freedoms, perhaps a drug overdose, may be the apex of Spiritualized's spiritual journey. However, the album ends on an extremely strange phrase, where Pierce sings "funeral home." Though even here, Pierce seems to have made peace with the idea there can be peace, and that will eventually be through death, and going home.

This isn't as jaw-dropping as Ladies and Gentlemen We're Floating in Space or awe-inspiring as I'm on Fire. Nor is it as rough edged as Pure Phase or Amazing Grace. Rather its a sort of return to the connectedness of Lazer Guided Melodies, with a more grounded, stripped down, approach. On its own its a solid album. As part of Spiritulized's body of work, and its spiritual search, its amazing.

Also By Spiritualized:

Lazer Guided Melodies (1992) * * * * * (though all CD releases after 1996 have a glaring mis-laid track start)

Pure Phase (1995) * * *

Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997) * * * * * (named the Fortnightly's best album of 1997 and to our list of the 150 greatest albums of all-time)

Let it Come Down (2001) * * * *

Amazing Grace (2003) * * 1/2

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