Spiritualized – Rated X
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Like most things Jason Pierce has been involved with recently, there's a fairly ridiculous contributor/gear list on the inside of 2003's Amazing Grace, and as nothing is listed by song I have no real idea what specifically is being used on “Rated X.” There are the odd strings, horns, guitar playing both conventional and abstract (at one point it sounds like wire being stretched) and even vocals, but it's still an incredibly weird track by Spiritualized's standards: of the 5:19 running time just over a minute and a half is occupied with what I'd consider to be the actual song, and it's what happens for the rest of the time and the interactions between the two modes the song exists in that elevates the track into something special.
Part of its power lies wholly outside the song itself; at one point Pierce doubles a key lyric from the devastating elegy “The Ballad of Richie Lee” in “Rated X,” and with only the fiercely joyous “Cheapster” in between the two tracks your mind is dragged back to the total, wasted enervation of that song. But while “The Ballad of Richie Lee” is a remembrance of a friend who committed suicide, “Rated X” has broader issues, and a different kind of oblivion, in mind:
And you might thinkOn “The Ballad of Richie Lee” those last four lines were as bleak as you can get, but here because Pierce is suffering not so much from a particular trauma as from memory itself, the obliteration of thought is presented hopefully; a slight amount of light seeps into Pierce's staticky vocals as he ends the “song” portion of “Rated X.” If he'd kept it short, like “Home of the Brave” off of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space he'd still have an incredibly affecting track. Of course, to get there, we had a minute and a half of what could be the band just preparing; the drum and guitar sounding incredibly tentative, the slight organ drone just a prelude. After he stops singing the song again subsides into this kind of half-existence for two minutes, the piano being tapped randomly, forlorn horns easing into view and apprehensively winding around the ductile guitar line, drums rumbling softly in the background.
The past is through
But the past goes right on through
And memory holds the hurt inside
Regret creeps up on you
So put your hand into my hand
And baby we'll forget
That life had even started
Before our hands had met
On a purely sonic level the moment when the more structured part of “Rated X” kicks in, Mellotrons and soft distortion gently pitching the track aloft, is quietly stunning. But what makes the song so great is that the structure of the track, even of Pierce's delivery, mirrors the content to strongly. He begins the song by singing “If memory was written down / I'd cut it up / And cross it out,” and then proceeds to do just that, assembling and disassembling “Rated X” right in front of your ears. The first couple of times I heard the album the intro and outro were lengthy enough that I effectively forgot the middle part, as subtly rapturous as it is, and that Pierce would marry that structure to a song about the pain of memory and the trap of the past is a brilliant touch. He wants to externalize his history, make it something he can cut up and cross out, and although the less consonant parts of “Rated X” have their own musical appeal at first they serve precisely that function.
When I mentioned to Alfred Soto that I wanted to talk about the song's use of memory and the past, he said he was thinking of doing something similar with Japan's great “Ghosts.” But while that song does make extremely effective use of a fairly spectral backing track and plenty of space for David Sylvian's voice, it's still more present in a number of ways than “Rated X.” This is a song that barely exists, that functions more as a waking dream (right down to Pierce's murmur) than anything else, and even has the verve to slowly lull you into slumber and then wake you back up afterwards; “Ghosts” is a synth-pop song, albeit an incredibly accomplished and interesting one. “Rated X” is one of the most intriguing and successful fusions of form and content I've ever heard, and while Pierce's lyrics might not work in a more forceful context, here they sound not just fitting but convincing. If you're ever going to escape the snare of temporal existence, this is the way you're going to do it, not drugs.