Friday, April 20, 2012

Sweet Jane On The Radio

These days, traditional American music--the blues, gospel, jazz--has nearly disappeared from guitar rock. A couple of creaky, cranky foreigners are the last guys standing. Spiritualized's Jason Pierce and Nick Cave are united by their original vision for the music that inspired rock and roll in the first place. Like Cave, Pierce bends blues and gospel idioms to his thematic interests. That Pierce goes by J Spaceman should give you some indication of what his treatment of these genres sounds like--spaced-out meditations on love, loss and drug use.

Spaceman's music--going back to his first band, Spacemen 3--has been consistently brilliant since the mid-80's. I may have been in a minority, but I thought his last album, 2008's Songs In A&E, was that year's best release (although Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' fearsome Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is a damn fine album itself). So of course I was excited that Pierce released an album this April. Was I right to be? Here's a track-by-track breakdown:

1. "Huh? (Intro)"
This brief intro eases listeners into Sweet Heart Sweet Light. Recalls the Harmony sketches on Songs in A&E, but the swelling strings make for a fuller sound. 

2. "Hey Jane"
Kicking off with one chord shot, the nine minute "Hey Jane" is classic Spiritualized: an immersive, lengthy jam that rushes forward, picking up instrumentation as it goes. The key line references the Velvets: Pierce has never been shy about his debts to the VU, here fitting the sweetness of "Sweet Jane" into "Sister Ray"'s mold. The breakdown around 2:50 doesn't entirely work, but it gives "Hey Jane" a second chance to build itself up, this time starting with a bass line and keyboard drone that sounds beamed in from The Perfect Prescription. The lead guitar is another wonder--unhurriedly climbing and falling against the rhythm, and inserted into the song with clinical precision. It's a reminder that this band (whose lineup has been relatively stable for a decade now) and its backup singers are a mighty unit. 5/5

3. "Little Girl"
Buoyed by a Wall of Strings, "Little Girl" brings to mind the lush style of 2001's Let It Come Down. Not that Songs in A&E was particularly raw, but this is on the baroque end of the spectrum. Most tellingly, the raggedness that crept into Pierce's voice on the last album has been banished. But his affectless vocals make a fine counterpoint to the swirling pop here, with its lovely little dance before the chorus. Bonus points for the melodic guitar solo, indebted to George Harrison, another of rock's spiritual hedonists. 4.5/5

4. "Get What You Deserve"
"Get What You Deserve" is driven by a two-chord drone. It sounds like something Spaceman would have done a quarter century ago with Spacemen 3, but it's played far faster here than that band ever would have done it. The vocal doesn't deliver any venom--the lyrics and delivery are weak points. At seven minutes it's longer than the material really justifies. But the keyboard, backwards noises and searching strings create a pleasant enough headspace. 3.5/5

5. "Too Late"
A piano ballad, basically, whose sweeping chorus is framed by verses about motherly wisdom. The transition from one to the other is abrupt at first, but sounds more and more natural. The lyrics are again a weak point, but the Pierce sells the vocal, which helps "Too Late" fall on the right side of the line between sweet and sentimental. 4/5

6. "Headin' for the Top Now"
The thunderstorming guitar is an abrasive palate cleanser after the last three tunes. No attempt is really made to corral it into tunefulness, and "Headin' for the Top Now" is a better and more ominous song for that. Another long tune, at over eight minutes, it hammers away at its groove until it sounds like a mantra. The vocals (and bass) are buried here, but I'm intrigued by the addition of the backing vocals at the end. The song grinds to a halt just as the female vox establish themselves--I wish Pierce would have seen how high they could take his groove, rather than letting them stomp it out. 4/5

7. "Freedom"
J Spacemen doesn't have a voice for country, but as "Freedom" attests, he can write it. That makes sense--country's themes aren't so far removed from the blues lyrics that Pierce endlessly reconfigures. Spiritualized's twang is narcoleptic, naturally, on this C&W kiss off. "Freedom" is an album track--I can assure you this will not be the next single--but the gentleness of the goodbye is special. The grandeur's in the simplicity. 3.5/5

8. "I Am What I Am"
I've never been a fan of "Cop Shoot Cop," the Dr. John-featuring album closer on Ladies And Gentlemen. So I was not especially excited by the appearance of a second Spiritualized song co-written with the Night Tripper (Pierce seems like more of a day tripper, as these things go). But this barroom stomp has an evil glint--it sounds a bit like the sky looks, all green or yellow or purple, before a tornado hits. The skronky horns are the fetid frosting on this dirty blues. 4.5/5

9. "Mary"
"Mary" follows naturally from "I Am What I Am"--a Stonesy snarl on which even the string section glares. Halfway through the song, Pierce does some rare adlibs, and stops singing. The band takes over, and their deliberate lurch is almost blues-rock--it's space blues played straight. This is a band that has always interpreted American gospel and blues, but "I Am What I Am" and "Mary" find them cutting records closer to that source material than ever before. 4/5

10. "Life Is a Problem"
There is a thin line between spiritual longing and chemical dependency in Spiritualized--a blurring together of spiritual and recreational ecstasy. This song's narrator pines for Christ to alter his psychology. The lyric doesn't quite work--lines like "Jesus please be my aeroplane" abound--but the string-driven track is nearly innocent enough to pull it off. One to give to Daniel Johnston? 3/5

11. "So Long You Pretty Thing"
You can feel it coming on before it happens, at 4:15, but the lift off that "So Long You Pretty Thing" achieves outpaces nearly anything in Spiritualized's catalog. Horns arrive from nowhere, clearing space for Pierce's archetypal riff to cut through in a no-bullshit moment of clarity. The celestial rock and roll of "So Long You Pretty Thing"'s final section is a revelation, a rare moment of affirmation in the Spiritualized catalog. It's an answer to the song's first two movements--one of them a duet between Pierce and his eleven year-old daughter--which pose loneliness as the deepest of all spiritual longings. The second movement finds a weary Pierce looking for help from above, and some unexpected banjo.

The first two parts of this song would be lovely by themselves, but it's the transition to that churning riff, gospel choir, and proud horns--it's like sailing forward inside a sunbeam. The lyrics here don't particularly answer the dilemma Pierce sets out. But the music does, as it ascends up and up, higher with each iteration, responding to Pierce's dilemma with its body-seizing catharsis. This is a song whose power and danger stem from its empathy--for its reveal that the guy hiding behind his sunglasses is an optimist. 5/5

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