Opinion | Lush, otherworldly music that will elevate you
Space-rock's stars, Spiritualized, has a new album you can levitate to
On Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, the British space-rock band Spiritualized’s third studio album from 1997, the number of individual musicians playing is 16. But if you consider the fact that the Balanescu String Quartet and the London Community Gospel Choir were also enlisted for the recording, the total number of people playing and singing on the album could burgeon to more than double that number. The names of very few bands describe the kind of music they play as precisely as Spiritualized does. Or, for that matter, the title of their third album can. Spiritualized is the brainchild of British guitarist and singer Jason Pierce (also going by J. Spaceman). Formed in 1990 after his earlier trance rock band Spacemen 3 broke up, Spiritualized’s sound is luxuriantly symphonic and yet, also hypnotic. It can seem otherworldly too, as Ladies And Gentlemen as well as the band’s other albums do, but there is always also a hymnal aspect to it with evidence of strong influences of gospel and soul music.
There are also witty hat tips to popular music. On the title track of Ladies And Gentlemen, Pierce employed the lyrics and melody of Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling In Love, which had to be modified after Presley’s estate objected but versions that have those words and the tune are still available. On another song off that album, Cop Shoot Cop…, the New Orleans’ pianist
Dr John makes a guest appearance, adding a dollop of his unique funk-meets-blues-meets-jazz style. But the sound of Spiritualized, on all of the band’s albums, always has a massive, elevated and panoramic soundscape with strings, horns, keyboards and choral arrangements. That is why when I learnt that the band’s latest album, And Nothing Hurt (released early September), was recorded by Pierce at home and pieced together and mixed using the Pro Tools digital audio workstation, I wondered how it would sound.
I needn’t have worried. And Nothing Hurt is the eighth studio album by Spiritualized, whose line-up Pierce has changed many times—he has been the only constant factor in the band over the years. It took six years for him to make the new album. He was strapped for cash and couldn’t afford the elaborate string orchestra arrangements that recur in most of Spiritualized’s back catalogue. Instead he substituted those by using samples from classical records in his personal collection and composed the foundation for each of the album’s nine tracks on his laptop in his bedroom. He then employed musicians to play instruments that he couldn’t play himself, and a choir, recording their parts separately in various studios before layering them on the basic tracks to complete the album.
The result is as panoramic and lush as any of the earlier Spiritualized albums, if not better than many of those, except perhaps the masterpiece, Ladies And Gentleman, which has recorded platinum sales since it came out. If you didn’t read about how And Nothing Hurt has been put together, you wouldn’t know. The nine songs, rich with guitars, horns, keyboards, percussion and choral arrangements hypnotically waft over listeners and elevate them to the familiar “other" world that Spiritualized always manages to reach. The lyrics of Pierce’s songs have always touched upon intimate personal themes—love, desire and the struggle with inner demons such as addiction and life’s frustrations. Yet they are uplifting.
You can identify the different genres that have influenced the band over the years on And Nothing Hurt: the nod to R&B and the Beatles on I’m Your Man; the country-style slide guitar on Damaged; the honky-tonk ballad about a girl running away from home on The Morning After; or the gospel-style vocals on Sail On Through, which closes the album. Compared to earlier albums, And Nothing Hurt is short—just 48 minutes. Yet that hasn’t hindered Pierce’s efforts to fill it to the brim with sonic richness. His genius lies in his ability to fuse different genres—Lou Reed type garage rock, 1970s’ psychedelia, blues. gospel and soul—but also to simmer all of that together in a pot that delivers a spaced-out, extra-terrestrial end result that can be only described as the sonic trademark of his band.
Spiritualized’s music has sometimes been criticized for its repetitive leitmotif and the often sombre subject matter of the songs but those are the very things that make their records gorgeous—those, and the whimsy of Pierce’s lyrics. On I’m Your Man on the new album, he sings: I could be faithful, honest and true/ Holding my heart for you/ Dependable all down the line/ Devoted all the time/ But if you want wasted, loaded, permanently folded/ Doin’ the best that he can/ I’m your man/ I’m your man.
Not long ago, Pierce, now 52, had a bout of severe ill health: pneumonia affected his lungs, he lost weight and his heart stopped beating momentarily. He has recovered since and has hinted that And Nothing Hurt could be the last Spiritualized album. But as I write this, he’s touring in Europe, promoting the new album, and wowing his fans.
Many believe that Spiritualized’s albums ought to be heard on a powerful stereo system with the volume cranked up high. Given the luxuriant quality of the band’s sound, that method of enjoying Spiritualized’s music obviously works but I have found that plugging in my big around-the-ear headphones into the amp and sitting back with (or without) some libation, works the best. I’ve read reports that Pierce is having second thoughts about And Nothing Hurt being Spiritualized’s last album. I’m hoping those are true.
The Lounge List
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘I’m Your Man’ by Spiritualized from ‘And Nothing Hurt’
2. ‘The Morning After’ by Spiritualized from ‘And Nothing Hurt’
3. ‘Cop Shoot Cop…’ by Spiritualized from ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’
4. ‘Won’t Get To Heaven (The State I’m In)’ by Spiritualized from ‘Let It Come Down’
5. ‘Angel Sigh/ Sway/ 200 Bars’ by Spiritualized from ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets at @sanjoynarayan