Songs in A&E arrives in 2008. It is their much anticipated sixth studio album, two years in the making. Main man J. Spaceman is back after a serious illness which had him in the hospital. Spiritualized are an English rock band formed in 1990 in Rugby, Warwickshire by Jason Pierce (who often goes by the alias J. Spaceman) after the demise of his previous outfit, space-rockers Spacemen 3. The membership of Spiritualized has changed from album to album, with Pierce - who writes, composes and sings all of the band's material - being the only constant member. Spiritualized have released five studio albums. The best known and most critically acclaimed of these was 1997's Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, which NME Magazine made their Album of the Year.
Review by Thom Jurek
Who would have thought that Jason Pierce's Spiritualized would have had any life in them after the rather uninspiring Amazing Grace in 2003? In the intervening five years, Pierce nearly died from double pneumonia. Near death experiences by their very nature are life-changing events. The music on Songs in A&E were recorded in that aftermath, but most of the album was written two years before he got sick; with so much of it about near death and survival, it feels like life imitating art. From the first notes of "Sweet Talk," it's obvious that a very different Spiritualized is up and about; an acoustic guitar, a sparse drum kit, the voice quartet, a few horns, and a minimal bassline fuel it. Pierce sweetly croons to a loved one in waltz time; his words are simultaneously appeasing and accusatory. The gospel chorus isn't as overblown as it was on Amazing Grace or Let It Come Down. They are in a support role, offering Pierce's reedy voice a fullness and authority it wouldn't have otherwise. The arrangement is lilting but powerful. How strange, then, the sounds of a ventilator that usher in the next track "Death Take Your Fiddle": "I think I'll drink myself into a coma/And I'll take every way out I can find/But morphine, codeine, Whisky, they won't alter/The way I feel/Now death is not around..."Death take your fiddle"/And play a song for me." Minor-key acoustic guitar and ghostly bass frame Pierce singing a mutant folk-blues that evokes Gary Davis' "Death Don't Have No Mercy." The backing vocals float wordlessly like death angels, hovering around the vocalist and giving the tune an otherworldly quality. But this isn't a song about dying; it's a song about coming close and cheating it; it's eerie. The proof? The next two tracks: "I Gotta Fire," and "Soul on Fire." The former is a taut, "Gimme Shelter"-esque rocker, the latter, a lush, uptempo love song. "Sitting on Fire" is a beautifully orchestrated love song: it's an admission of weakness and codependency but celebrates both of them at the same time: "Baby, I'm sitting on fire/but the flames put a hole in my heart/when we're together we stand so tall/But a part of me falls to the floor/Sets me free /I do believe it'll burn up in me for the rest of my life." Strings, vibes, marimbas, and drums crash in to the center of the mix carrying the protagonist into oblivion. "Yeah, Yeah" is a scorching rocker that feels like the Bad Seeds meeting the old Spacemen 3. "You Lie You Cheat," crashes in Velvets style with acoustic guitar and screeching feedback. The chorus sings atop a flailing drum kit, distorted strings, and wailing electric guitar. The marimbas and strings that power "Baby, I'm Just a Fool," sweetly underscore a very dark pop song, complete with "da-do-da-do-dat det-det-do's". It descends into beautifully textured chaos led by a loopy violin solo over seven minutes. Songs in A&E is the most consistent recording Spiritualized has issued since 1997's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. It contains the best elements of the band's signature sound, and paradoxically hedonistic yet utterly spiritual lyric themes. That said, newly focused energy, willfully restrained arrangements, and taut compositions give the set a sheer emotional power that no Spiritualized recording has ever displayed before, making it, quite possibly, their finest outing yet.
Songs in A&E
[Fontana International/Spaceman/Universal; 2008]
I'm loathe to call any album a summation of an artist's career-- that reeks of lazy criticism-- but Songs in A&E is certainly Spiritualized's best work in 10 years. All of Jason Pierce's fascinations of the past 20-plus years appear here-- we'll get to 'em soon enough-- in a truly syncretic, muted, and beautiful way. And there's something rooted and grounded about Songs in A&E. Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in place.
This is Pierce's first record in five years-- the delay was, in part, due to him being hospitalized with double pneumonia, i.e. he was really fucked-up and tethered to machines to keep him alive. (In the UK, the ER is called the Accident & Emergency ward-- hence the title.) Not surprisingly, Pierce's ordeal colors the sound and tone of the record-- "Death Take Your Fiddle", essentially another update of the traditional "O Death", seems to sample the sound of a respirator-- although Pierce has stated in interviews that the album was already more than half-finished when he took ill.
Lyrically, as Pierce as wont to do, there are love songs, drug songs, and God songs-- typically, they're all those things at once at times. Pierce's protagonist on these tunes is world-weary ("So hard to fight when you're losing/ I got a little fire in my soul," he says on "I Gotta Fire") and sounds all the more so in Pierce's lovely croaking/cracking vocals. What saves the songs from woe-is-me solipsism and overarching sentimentality is a well-hidden but ironic sense of humor. Well, that and the fact that the music itself is awesome. The key song is "Borrowed Your Gun", which begins like a typical junkie lament with "Daddy I'm sorry" but continues into murder ballad territory with "I borrowed your gun again/ Shot up your family."
A few songs on Songs in A&E run on a bit too long-- this is a Spiritualized record, after all-- and from some angles a few arrangements can sound hokey. The big rocker "I Gotta Fire" is like the Stone Roses covering Sonic Youth's "Bull in the Heather", but even on lesser tracks, a delightful oboe or a crazy lyric or a swelling gospel chorus swoops in and gives you a reason to replay the track. Pierce is again walking mopey, orchestral, minimalist rock out to the margins of taste and messing with your head all over the place. And this time he does it with a shit-ton of sonic subtlety. (Take those earbuds out and pop this one on the stereo.)
Pierce has never seemed so in control of his aesthetic, rather than controlled by it like some sort of drone-rock fetishist. The props dropped here are super obvious, and meant to be so, whether to Daniel Johnston with the "Funeral Home" refrain or to Kris Kristofferson with a quotation from "Me & Bobby McGee". Prior releases each had enjoyable but indulgent bliss-out tracks that went on a long time, but on A&E the out sounds are distilled into six miniature numbered tracks each called "Harmony". These serve as a glue holding the album together, and while they're "spacey," their brevity keeps the record on solid terrestrial ground. The other songs are vessels for contrasting ideas: la-la melodies vs. wah-wah guitar, strings vs. brass, country licks vs. Free Design-style vocals, and simple structures vs. lush arrangements. These oppositional concepts overlap more than ever on A&E, but the album only sounds muddled or muddied during a few clunky transitions. And weirdly, those serve to make you more aware than ever of the greatness of what he's doing the rest of the time.
- Mike McGonigal, June 3, 2008