x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Spirits lifted with what could be Spiritualized's best album yet

Effortlessly combining searing rock with sublime reflective numbers, all united under a cloud of pedal effects, the album is rarely anything other than joyous.

Jason Pierce of Spiritualized on stage at London's Hackney Empire in March.
Jason Pierce of Spiritualized on stage at London's Hackney Empire in March.

Spiritualized
Sweet Heart Sweet Light
Double Six Records
****

It seems like Spiritualized's main man Jason Pierce – aka J Spaceman – has never had it easy. When the psych-rock outfit he formed in his teens, Spacemen 3, fell apart, the group he is in today were forced to live out their predecessor's record deal.

Then, in the mid-1990s, his relationship with Spiritualized's keyboard player Kate Radley at the time broke down in the most public way, when it was revealed she had covertly married The Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft. That's nothing compared with the past decade, however, which saw the British artist twice declared technically dead after a serious bout of pneumonia. The making of this, the group's seventh album, hasn't been easy either, reportedly taking an entire year just to mix, while other health problems persisted.

But although the scars of the artist's personal life have always run through the fabric of Spiritualized's musical output, the records could never be described as miserable or sympathy-seeking affairs. In fact, the group's devotees have always been able to expect buoyant, life-affirming rock'n'roll, beneath the all-important layers of woozy effects and elaborate strings and harmonies.

On noticeably stronger vocal and songwriting form than 2008's Songs in A&E (on which Pierce sounded noticeably diminished), Sweet Heart Sweet Light is his most resplendent work in more than a decade. The artist has said his recent experience of playing the band's 1997 magnum opus Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space, live in its entirety, influenced the writing of these songs – and it shows.

The first single Hey Jane – a carefree Primal Scream-meets-Velvet Underground stomper – could easily have sat among the likes of Come Together and All of My Thoughts, from their most universally acclaimed LP. Heading From The Top also shows off Pierce's fondness for noisy psychedelia, and despite clocking in at more than eight minutes, the distorted epic never grows tiresome. But as the title might suggest, Sweet Heart Sweet Light has more moments of delicate beauty than booming rock. Take the gorgeous Get What You Deserve; drenched in Indian strings it never rises above an amble, but still manages to feel like a grand emotional statement. The song's title and aesthetic alludes to karma and eastern philosophy, and it's impossible not to think that Pierce might have been contemplating his own not-insignificant suffering when it was written.

There are catchy tunes, too, such as the piano-driven Too Late and the McCartney-esque Little Girl, with its singalong chorus and soaring female backing vocals - but there's still just enough distortion for it to feel like Spiritualized. Towards the end of the record, things get a little more downbeat with the yearning Freedom and blues-inspired Mary. While both tunes have their moments, they highlight a perennial problem with Pierce's darker output – it's a little too easy to become disconnected when his troubled emotional side rises to the surface. But not all of his more wistful compositions have this effect. Life Is a Problem, which features one of the album's most conspicuous string accompaniments, seems to call back to Floating In Space's disarmingly tender Broken Heart.

Like any recent release from Spiritualized, don't expect Sweet Heart Sweet Light to win legions of new followers. The group's long-standing fans, however, will probably recognise this as Pierce's finest work in more than a decade and perhaps even a worthy companion to his career-defining 1997 release. Effortlessly combining searing rock with sublime reflective numbers, all united under a cloud of pedal effects, the album is rarely anything other than joyous. How an afflicted soul such as J Spaceman can manage such a thing is a question few earthlings could ever hope to answer.

 

artslife@thenational.ae