Jason Pierce has Lived. He’s earned that capital “L” because of the multitude of things he’s experienced over the course of his 46 years. When he formed Spacemen 3 30 years ago, the band’s motto was: “Take drugs to make music to take drugs to.” He was true to his word there, and that mentality largely carried over when he started Spiritualized some years later. Things went well for awhile, and Spiritualized hit their high point in 1997 with the release of Ladies and Gentlemen…We Are Floating in Space. It was somewhere around 2005 when life began to turn upside down for Pierce. Not feeling well, he checked into the hospital where doctors diagnosed him with double pneumonia. He was in the Accident & Emergency ward for quite awhile getting better, hooked up to all sorts of machines and even reportedly died a couple times. After such a harrowing experience, he fleshed out the partly recorded Songs in A&E, with quite a few allusions to death and sickness. Things were fine for awhile, that is until last year, when Pierce went to the doctor for a routine check-up and found out his liver was quickly failing. Years of drug abuse had taken its toll, and he was rushed into treatment almost immediately. Instead of going the more traditional route towards healing, he chose an experimental drug treatment that would be far less harsh on his body. Confined to his house during that time, he chose to write and record the next Spiritualized album. The result is Sweet Heart Sweet Light, and it’s quite possibly the best thing Pierce has put together in a decade and a half. It would seem that any sort of drugs, legal or illegal, are the Perfect Prescription to making a great Spiritualized record.
If you’ve ever taken the time to give a close listen to any Spiritualized album, you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the project. The album titles Ladies and Gentlemen…We Are Floating in Space and Amazing Grace are equally great descriptors of the band’s sound, which is a mixture of psychedelia, gospel and blues. Seven albums in, you’d think the sounds and thematics might change. In some ways they have, with certain records emphasizing certain aspects more than others. For example, Songs in A&E had a fragility and precarious emotional core to it that wasn’t present on any of the band’s other albums. Pierce also used that record to focus more on religion and death than usual, and his other favorite topics of drugs, girls and redemption took on a less prominent role. Sweet Heart Sweet Light could well be considered a return to normalcy, but Spiritualized have never been a truly normal band. The reason they’ve been able to get away with maintaining a modestly even sonic keel is because there’s not really anybody else that sounds similar. Yet like all of the band’s past efforts, this new one has small qualities that help it to stand out from the rest of the catalogue. Most specifically, Spiritualized has never sounded more pop-friendly. First single “Hey Jane” is one of the catchiest things Pierce has ever come up with, even as it’s about three times longer than your average pop song. Around halfway through it reaches a breaking point, devolving into nearly nothing before coming back faster and more powerful than ever. That’s another distinctive quality of this album: it’s nearly the antithesis of Songs in A&E by exuding a confidence and strength that feels refreshing. It’s almost as if living through double pneumonia and fighting for his liver pushed him into treating every day like it could be his last. One gets the impression that Pierce would rather go out with a bang rather than a whimper.
A close lyrical analysis of Sweet Heart Sweet Light somewhat tempers the idea that this record is indeed life-affirming. “Sometimes I wish that I was dead/cause only the living can feel the pain,” he sings at the start of the soulful “Little Girl”. That sentiment is tempered by the song’s chorus though, which advises the titular girl to make the most of the time she’s given. On the epic and orchestral “Too Late” amid warnings about how love can break your heart, Pierce confesses in a moment of pure clarity that he, “Won’t love you more than I love you today/and I won’t love you less but I’ve made my mistakes.” The tenderness and devotion are touching, even when faced with the reality that we’re relentlessly flawed human beings. Shades of Neil Young circa “Heart of Gold” or The Rolling Stones circa “Wild Horses” are all over the ballad “Freedom”, with the plodding piano and acoustic guitar pairing providing a beautiful base for a chorus that begins with the relatable, “Freedom is yours if you want it,” but ends with the somber, “Made up my mind/to leave you behind/cause you just don’t know what to feel.” Where this record truly rings triumphant though is in the nearly 8-minute finale of “So Long You Pretty Thing”. Not only does it have the makings of an exhilarating torch song, but like “Hey Jane” it has one of the most memorable refrains of a Spiritualized track to date. As it begins its slow fade out, the glorious chorus still going, you kind of get the impression that it could have gone on for another five minutes like that and wouldn’t be any worse for the wear.
Given Pierce’s temprament and health battles the last several years, it’s worth mentioning that Sweet Heart Sweet Light might just be the last Spiritualized record. His liver is apparently fine now, or at least functional enough with the aid of drugs that he won’t die for a long time. Still, it’s been a rough decade so far, and maybe the next big bodily problem will be the one that finally does Pierce in. Let’s try not to be pessimistic and hope he finds a way to live another 46 years. But besides the physical problems though, Pierce has really started to appreciate the brilliance of his back catalogue. In the wake of touring around Songs in A&E, he was asked in 2009 to perform the Spiritualized classic Ladies and Gentlemen…We Are Floating in Space in its entirety at London’s Royal Festival Hall for an ATP event. Later that year, and months before that performance, a 3-disc Legacy edition of the record was released containing a wealth of demos and other odds and ends. Between compiling all that and performing what would ultimately become a handful of shows featuring that record, Pierce better understood what made it so special, beloved and praised. It pushed his own standards for making music higher as a result, and Sweet Heart Sweet Light is what he felt finally met those new expectations. Funny then that for most of the recording and mixing he was in a prescription drug-fueled haze that often left him mentally confused to the point where he kept calling the album Huh? because it was easier. If he’s this great while tripping on substances, you’ve almost got to wonder if health and clarity would help or hurt the final product. Either way, it’s also very possible Pierce will stop making music once he feels like he cannot top himself and contribute something truly great to the music world. With this new album being nearly a personal best and certainly one of 2012’s finest, one can only hope there’s so much more where this came from.