Monday, April 9, 2012

review: spiritualized- 'sweet heart sweet light'

For some reason I'm going to attempt to review this album despite the fact that I am 100% incapable of being anything resembling impartial about much of anything by Spiritualized. Regardless, the multiple streams of the new record have proven too irresistible to pass up and my desire to put my thoughts down about this album is too strong. Hovering just under the four-year mark after 2008's 'Songs in A&E' comes 'Sweet Heart Sweet Light'- the seventh Spiritualized album in almost 20 years. While watching a more pared-down (at least in Spiritualized terms) version of the band blow the roof off of the Metro for two solid hours in September of that year right on the heels of their terrifyingly fierce slot at that year's Pitchfork festival in July at one point (probably after they played the title track from 'Ladies and Gentlemen we are Floating in Space'- which I never thought I'd get to hear live) I was suddenly hit with a twinge of sadness. Getting to see the band twice in a year was quite a treat, as they really only get across the Atlantic when they have an album to promote. Add to that the fact that they had turned in two blinding sets and I began to worry how long I would have to wait for their return. Given the consistent four+ year wait time and the release of any Spiritualized album is always pretty momentous.

Musically I'd describe 'Sweet Heart Sweet Light' as 'Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space' via 'Songs in A&E.' The 11 songs are sprawling and lush in a similar way to their 1997 benchmark (and to many their high-water mark), but the songs burn intensely with the emotional core and sparse, unadorned sounds of 'Songs in A&E.' They also showcase another rather large step forward in Jason Pierce's (or J. Spaceman if you prefer) development as a songwriter. It also features the most crisp and clear production that Pierce has ever utilized. There's little in the way of trippy elements that are normally his hallmark, although there is plenty of feedback and guitar skronk (just listen to the rollercoaster ride of 'Heading for the Top') and a lot of the tremolos of the old days have returned. The strings and horns sound particularly breathtaking and while there is a lot going on in the mix there are very few times that anything is buried (maybe the drums a few times). The guitars are sharp and cutting and pack quite a punch. While Pierce is renowned for taking ages to mix his records (he took almost a year mixing this one, for instance) it often ends up causing the noisier tracks to lose their teeth (the only exception being 2003's 'Amazing Grace'), but this is definitely not the case here.

Stylistically the songs really run the gamut- there are a handful of Pierce's most solid ballads (like it or not, he does them very well) as well as some of his best and most unique rockers. 'I am What I am' and 'Heading for the Top' are fantastic both lyrically and musically- the former a collaboration with Dr. John from 1998 (which can be heard on a BBC session in a completely different form) that has a bassline that recalls 'Come Together' by the Beatles and a call-and-response chorus between Pierce and a Gospel choir over a backdrop of swampy overlapped percussion and squalling guitars. It segues nicely into the moody and slow-burning brilliance of 'Mary' which starts with an organ drone and some meandering wah-wah guitars and builds into a cinematic burst of dramatic string swells that wouldn't be out of place on a Curtis Mayfield record. Fantastic. Closing track 'So Long you Pretty Thing' is an interesting amalgam of influences- it starts with a verse written by Pierce's daughter Poppy (who also sings the lyrics with Pierce) over some stark piano that gives way suddenly to a swell of strings leading into a descending soul ballad that features some of Pierce's 'help me lord/Jesus' type lyrics that then jumps abruptly into a wide-eyed and soaring extended figure that frankly could go on forever. The overall effect as a closing track is closest in my mind to 'Won't Get to Heaven (The State I'm in)' off of 2001's 'Let it Come Down.' It's probably the best closing track from any Spiritualized album. Opener and lead single 'Hey Jane' is a nine-minute driving jangler in two parts (how many people still bother to do two-part singles?) that implodes in the middle only to build itself up again into one of the most beautiful and uplifting hooks in the band's career.

I would try to rank this album against the rest of Spiritualized's output but I have a difficult time figuring out which album belongs at the top of such a ranking and which one belongs at the bottom. I continue to be impressed and amazed by the fact that every Spiritualized album proves to be so rich with affecting and moving songs that continually stretch the boundaries of what the band does while working within their own distinctive framework. It's also thrilling to hear something so vital coming out of a band 20 years into its career.

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