Posted on Jun 22nd 2008 11:38 pm
Songs In A&E
Sanctuary Records 2008
18 Tracks. 51mins41secs
What happens when a young rocker who made a name chronicling a fast and dangerous lifestyle lives to face middle age? Consider this when looking at Jason Pierce, AKA J Spaceman, the creative center of Spiritualized. As part of Spacemen 3 in the late eighties, Pierce and fellow songwriter Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember wrote minimalist drone-rock chargers which chronicled drug use – heroin, most specifically – with a shocking openness and honesty. As Sonic and Spacemen reached irreconcilable disagreement, Pierce formed Spiritualized, a project which kept the minimalist, repetitive drive of Spacemen 3, while incorporating large, dizzy orchestrations.
Pierce’s songwriting has, up to this point, matured in a way – 1997’s Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating In Space, for example, still concerned drugs, but now they were for numbing heartbreak, rather than being young and not caring. The next great leap of maturity for Spiritualized is the latest release, Songs In A&E. Named after the Accidents & Emergencies ward of a hospital where Pierce spent time recovering from a life-threatening respiratory infection, A&E fittingly sounds like someone taking a step back, slowing down, and thinking. While the last Spiritualized album, 2003’s Amazing Grace, featured loud, claustrophobic guitars banging out blues-rock melodies of devil-may-care numbness and disgust, on A&E, Pierce sounds as though, for the first time, he’s realized that someone does care, and now he must face some repercussions and do some thinking.
The most salient illustration of the ethos this time is Death Take Your Fiddle, one of the darkest and most desperate songs Pierce has ever written. Over strummed acoustic guitar chords and percussion that sounds like an iron lung, Pierce fragilely intones “I’ll take every way out I can find / with morphine, codeine, whiskey, they won’t alter / the way I feel”. Perhaps most striking about the song is Pierce’s voice, which, for the first time, is starting to show cracks. After decades of singing about excess and self-destruction, it’s noticeably starting to take its toll.
This same anger frames You Lie You Cheat, an album highlight, in which an oddly heavenly gospel choir backs a rollickingly noisy, guitar-heavy piece, featuring an angry rant from Pierce. Who “you” is, is not identified here, but lines like “you lie, you cheat, you take it all / I cross my heart, I watch you fall”, suggest that Pierce’s ire goes to the Supreme Being in charge of his destiny. You Lie You Cheat is an interesting cousin to Spacemen 3’s Walkin’ With Jesus: while the latter found Pierce pleading for the salvation of his soul, the former sees an older, wiser, and more jaded Pierce expecting better for his honest, if flawed, efforts.
The soul-searching doesn’t always take such a negative path; on the contrary, many of A&E’s best moments come with songs of redemption, another staple of Pierce’s repertoire. Chief among these, and the clear highlight of the album, is Baby I’m A Fool. Laying more and more instruments over a two-chord guitar riff, Pierce sounds physically weak, but bears a surprising emotional strength, fluctuating between apology and desire. At almost eight minutes, it’s a classic quiet-loud Spiritualized rave-up, á la Medication or Home Of The Brave (coupled with The Individual) from 1994’s Pure Phase and 1997’s Ladies And Gentleman We Are Floating In Space, respectively. Soul On Fire, the first single from A&E, talks similarly of reserved redemption.
It is, lastly, fitting to mention the series of short, instrumental segues with the name Harmony: christened in honor of director Harmony Korine, whose wife appears on the album, and whose latest film, Mister Lonely, is scored by Pierce. Korine and Pierce are sensibly kindred spirits, both having come to prominence through nakedly honest tales of young excess, and both being creative geniuses, notoriously difficult to probe in the press. Perhaps Korine should look to Pierce for inspiration when tackling that greatest leviathan for the young auteur, maturity. With beauty, grace, and honesty, Pierce has produced a gently devastating masterpiece of repercussions and redemption on Songs in A&E.