ou have to wonder if the vanguard of the so-called new rock revolution realise that Jason Pierce has been peddling narcosis garage rock since almost before they were born, first with Spacemen 3’s minimalist pharmaceutical drone and latterly with the multi-hued gospel-psyche-blues-pop of Spiritualized. The Hives might have the moves, The Libertines might have the looks and The Strokes might have the daddies, but J Spaceman has the history and talent and determination that every one of the above would kill for. This isn’t some ‘next big thing’ bandwagon for him; it’s his life, for better or worse.
Lauded by some and laughed at by others, Let It Come Down had Pierce pushing his muse in an ostentatious direction, massed orchestras and gospel choirs meaning there were up to 100+ musicians performing on some cuts, a far cry from the drums, keys, bass, guitar and drone of his earliest work. Needless to say, many long-term fans were left alienated, but if we’re honest LICD featured some of the Spaceman’s best songwriting underneath all the vastly arranged brouhaha and honky-tonk piano. His melodic sense will never change (it’s barely altered in 18 years) and likewise his lyrics will always be mired in classicist rock redemptionalism, all “oh sweet lord / I’m tired / and my soul is burnt out / I think tonight I might / get Chinese take-out” faux-spiritual nonsense, but nevertheless he is the undisputed master of his field. Jason Pierce treading water is almost infinitely preferable to Richard Ashcroft diving in and backstroking for all he’s worth, and when Spaceman hits the nail dead-on the results are nothing less than astounding.
Variation between Spiritualized albums has always been founded on interpretation and arrangement. Laser Guided Melodies was built on bubblegum pop bleached out with farfisa drone and dreamy repetition, Pure Phase on gospel and rock strung-out via filtersweeps and drifting ambient passages, while 1997’s epochal and magnificent Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space took in free jazz and hyper-modern soul dynamics, while continuing the obsessions with repetition, gospel and garage rock.
Never known for his work-ethic, it took Pierce four years to follow-up Ladies & Gentlemen with Let It Come Down. Less than two years later though, and the fifth Spiritualized album, recorded in secret, is already finished. Jason has spoken recently of being inspired by the back-to-basics approach of The White Stripes, and a first listen to the opening track, “This Little Life Of Mine”, would seem to confirm that. It’s the heaviest thing Pierce has ever put his name to, a dirty clunking dirge of guitar scree, distorted vocals and muddied tempo which subverts the melody from a children’s hymn. It’s also defiantly un-radio-friendly, and probably gave record company execs near heart attacks after the lush presentation of the last album
Amazing Grace isn’t just stripped-down, it’s also the most concise thing Spiritualized have ever put together, clocking in at just over 43 minutes. Speeding up the recording process appears to have forced Pierce to diligently trim any fat from these songs; only two of them run past the five-minute mark, and then only by seconds. The Spaceman has resisted any urge to fill the time he has used with extraneous orchestration though, the opening piano of “The Power And The Glory” as minimalist as anything on Mark Hollis’ solo album, space and silence as important as notes struck. That the track builds from this hushed genesis into an overwhelming jazz-toned instrumental is also refreshing, as drums, guitar and horns recall the grandeur of Hot Buttered Soul, Miles seizing inexorable motion in “Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)” from Porgy & Bess, and Jason’s own “No God Only Religion” from L&G;. After the orchestral lushness of the last album, Amazing Grace brings Pierce back to his love affair with seething noise and chaos. “Never Goin’ Back” takes great pleasure in the joy of incompetent noise and a repetitiously hammered piano note, while “Cheapster” brilliantly filters Chuck Berry into the twenty-first century for two minutes. That’s not all though- Jason tries out frazzled country with “Hold On”, which ends with a slow harmonica stomp, and employs minimal guitar and organ on “Rated X” as well as anyone has since Laughing Stock.
Jason’s still got to try that gospel thing though. “Oh Baby” and “Lord Let It Rain On Me” are as pure attempts at harnessing the devotional choir as anything Pierce as done, and the further away from audacity he moves with their arrangements the more effective they become, climaxes founded on organs and emotion rather than 40-piece string sections and community choirs.
Jason Pierce has basically spent the last 18 years writing and rewriting the same song over and over again, as the four brilliantly similar but oh-so-beautifully different versions of “Feel So Sad” on the recent Complete Works Volume 1 compilation attest. His work with Spring Heel Jack and a school of free-jazz improvisers (including Han Bennink and Evan Parker) may be an interesting distraction, but this is Pierce’s calling. He may well be repeating himself, and I doubt he’ll ever touch genius as profoundly as he did on Ladies & Gentlemen or Laser Guided Melodies, but Spiritualized are still a force. Talk lately may be about Blur or Radiohead being the best British band of the last ten years, but things really aren’t as clear-cut as that.