ollowing 2001’s overblown Let It Come Down, which featured 100+ musicians and grandiose string, horn, and choir arrangements, Spiritualized mainman Jason Pierce decided that his group’s next album would follow a more stripped-down, back-to-basics rock approach. While it’s certainly less dense than its predecessor, Amazing Grace is far from sparse: there are still layers of guitars, the odd gospel choir, strings (but not orchestras), and squealing horns. Still, Amazing Grace is likely as scaled-back an album as Pierce’s restless, perfectionist mind can make.
A few years ago, while I was working retail at a record store, a regular customer, a Seventies space rock enthusiast had been pointed in the direction of the Spiritualized show in town that evening on the Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space tour. He asked me to give a brief description of their sound. Never having put it into words for the uninitiated before, I thought for a minute, then responded: “It’s all about peaks and valleys. It gets loud and dense, then it gets quiet and spooky, and then it gets loud and dense again. Picture that for two hours or so.” I was simplifying matters a bit for him, but really, that about summed up the live Spiritualized experience at the time. The show was fabulous, intense and driving, but truthfully, by about the fifth giant climax of sound, the thrill had sort of worn off.
Perhaps I wasn’t on the right drugs that evening, but it seemed to point toward a disturbing trend I had been seeing in Jason Pierce’s music. It struck me that Pierce’s songs had started to take a backseat to the wall of sound he was trying to create, and it just seemed to keep getting bigger and bigger. Let It Come Down confirmed my suspicions. I was personally relieved and encouraged when, halfway through the world tour for that album, Pierce threw away the choirs and strings and horns and finished the road trip as a lean mean rock machine. I pictured Amazing Grace as the perfect antidote to Let It Come Down; a more mature stab at Sound Of Confusion perhaps, but with better and less derivative tunes. Finally, Jason Pierce the musician would return and Jason Pierce the “composer” would retire to his study.
While Amazing Grace may not sound like the garage-rock trio I envisioned, Pierce and Co. sound infinitely more live and direct here than on previous efforts, and far less sterile. The sultry acoustic balladry of “Hold On” is probably the simplest thing Pierce has recorded since his Spacemen 3 days, and consequently one of the most moving. More instruments fill the organ-driven “Cheapster,” but it rumbles along like an early electric Dylan recording and is no less effecting. On this disc Pierce’s songwriting strengths shine through more clearly than ever because there’s less studio gloss for them to fight through.
Of course Pierce couldn’t resist all temptation (hey, he’s made a living these last few years writing about that very character flaw), and there are overdubs present, but not to the point that they become overbearing. And more significantly, none of the songs sound like any of the other songs—a refreshing change to say the least, as repetition had also bogged down the last few records. Fans of Spiritualized’s bombastic past may feel empty afterward (though they shouldn’t), but with Amazing Grace, Pierce has achieved a perfect balance between his traditional blues-rock leanings and his appetite for studio excess.