Few artists agonize over every single second of their album as much as grizzled cosmonaut, J. Spaceman (aka Jason Pierce). The now 46-year-old composer sounded uneasy about the press listening to a copy of Spiritualized’s seventh album sans the titular 40-second introduction. “So, now I’ve got this unenviable position — you guys are listening to one record, and I’ve got a different record. Similar in shape, but a different record,” Pierce bemoaned to Magnet last month.
Despite his medical woes, Pierce traversed the globe (from L.A. to Rekjavik) to pinpoint the exact ingredients for a red pill worth taking. That Matrix allusion aside, this is intentionally more melodic and poppy than nearly anything he’s released with his amorphous players (save hit “Soul on Fire” off of 2008’s Songs in A&E). Holed up in his home studio, telling The Guardian with distinctive English wry “I decided to make a record on these drugs” a humble nod to the old Spaceman 3 motto: “Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to”, he forced himself to not write off traditional melody as the bane of rock n roll. Instead what we hear is hints of classic vinyl (Captain Beefheart, Link Wray) slightly warped and rendered through the “space rock” sound we’ve come to expect. What elevates this disc to magnum opus status is the best parts are unexpected — and gigantic.
The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and Pierce may be more akin than expected after you let the open-fifth strings of “Huh?” (aforementioned 40-second introduction) effortlessly glide through you. It speaks volumes of Spaceman’s entire state of mind: utter bewilderment and shock that he’s still alive and sober after decades of self-imposed abuse. Nine minute opus “Hey Jane” rides in behind the orchestral accompaniment with a zero-gravity salute to rock of old. But this ballad radiates a nouveau riche sense of fulfilled pop majesty. Thanks to an American gospel choir, tight mid-tempo melody straight out of London’s famed Hacienda circa 1996 and his proclivity for channeling a sardonically refined Liam Gallagher, this jangly ballad is pop rock burnished to a halcyon shine. Make sure to strap in for the deliciously reconstructed four minute bridge, it makes for an unforgettably raucous ride.
“Sometimes I wish that I was dead/’Cause only living can feel the pain/Sometimes I wish that I could fly/You get so grounded when life will pass you by.” A vulnerable confession from someone who’s seemingly been through it all. “Little Girl” carries considerably less gravitas than “Hey Jane” but its heart-rending honesty and resolve to carry on, musically and lyrically, is a note any coming-of-age film from the ‘70s could only hope to end on. Dissonant pedal notes and distant sitar grind harmoniously against metered cries on “Get What You Deserve.”
What elevates this disc to magnum opus status is the best parts are unexpected — and gigantic.
Continuing his role as the hardened sage who finally gets to impart his own wisdom, “Too Late” beautifully hashes out his regrets for missing the chance to mount a respectable moral high horse and saunter off toward the brightest nebula. The most “Spiritualized” track on this LP is the power-chord driven “Headin for the Top Now.” The open spaces between the lead and rhythm guitar are fluid and guided by augmented key changes that seem to build forever. No doubt that if they feel like blasting off, they can and will at a moments notice.
Daniel Johnston himself would let out a big crooked grin if he heard “Freedom.” Its poignant melody resembles early Delta Spirit or even Wilco’s “Red Eyed and Blued”, but infinitely more triumphant. Sure it ambles along, but it’s sure and confident in its strident resolve. Bringing in the spectral and spooky rhythms of Nawlins savant Dr. John on “I Am What I Am” harkens back to 2003’s Amazing Grace, leaving plenty of saucy soul open to clean off a rebellious bone.
You might expect someone who’s seen the light at the end of the tunnel to open a closing number with verses “Jesus won’t you be my radio/Broadcast direction where I gotta go/Send me a signal and I will receive/Jesus please be there and take care of me.” But the timbre he adopts to call the heavens above is a plaintive take on Nirvana’s live cover of The Vaselines “Jesus Don’t Want Me For a Sunbeam.” Gospel is inherently sonorous, despite its religious context. Little Richard could attest to that. “Life is a Problem” ultimately acknowledges lilliputian humanity seeking something bigger, something “pure.” A tender duet with his daughter Poppy Spaceman on “So Long You Pretty Thing” simultaneously exorcises the demons of doubt while uniting us with the greatest drug of all, timeless rock n roll.
Listen to ‘Sweet Heart Sweet Light’ in its entirety here.
This album review is sponsored by Fox Searchlight’s ‘Sound of My Voice’, in theaters April 27.