Tomorrow, after an impressive campaign to reintroduce Jason Pierce’s Spiritualized to an audience that may never have heard of Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, the album Sweet Heart Sweet Light at last will be released. Thankfully, we were able to listen to the epic opener, “Hey Jane,” beginning in March, and NPR has been continuing its public service by allowing us to stream Sweet Heart Sweet Light in its entirety for the past week. Interviews and profiles of Pierce have flowed like altar wine. The album has been so well publicized it arrives devoid of mystery, but because it is Spiritualized, and because according to most rock’n'roll playbooks, Pierce should have been dead long ago — and also, to be sure, because the music is so good — we still have the transubstantiation of mere bits, bytes and musical notes into something miraculous and fine.
Calling an album Sweet Heart Sweet Light (Spiritualized seems allergic to commas in album titles) and leading off with a song called “Hey Jane” lets you know exactly in front of which God Jason Pierce genuflects. If they’d called the album White Light White Heat and the song “Sweet Jane,” would it have been any clearer? We wouldn’t ordinarily think of the Velvet Underground, and particularly Lou Reed, in spiritual terms. But then there are those lines in “Heroin,” which probably inspired Pierce all the way back in his Spaceman 3 days: “When I’m rushing on my run/And I feel just like Jesus’ son…” No matter how many times he invokes Jesus — and Pierce has walked with Jesus, at least in his lyrics, for some 20 years, and does so repeatedly on Sweet Heart Sweet Light — we don’t actually think of him in spiritual terms, no matter what his band is called.
We think of Pierce as a heroin surviver who has made transcendent music, inspired by the Velvets and Lou to a degree that makes Dean Wareham or Anton Newcombe seem like casual fans. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, we have long since concluded that Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space was the great album of the 1990s, even as it was overshadowed by other albums from the exceptional vintage year of 1997 (OK Computer, Strangers Almanac.) Longtime readers of Tulip Frenzy may find it puzzling that we think of Spiritualized the way we do, as we’ve been critical of anything that smacks, if you’ll pardon the expression, of heroin chic. But some years ago we clarified that we view Jason Pierce as nothing so much as an anti-heroin morality play. His greatest work was essentially all about heroin, not to glamorize it, though yeah, sure, it offers ecstasy and all that, but as much to deal honestly with its aftereffects. Space rock it may be called, but Pierce has always been exceptionally honest, not exploiting his having breakfast right off of a mirror so much as matter-of-factly offering it as a glimpse of his life. The consequences of heroin have predictably, and we have to say satisfyingly (to someone who despises heroin chic) been borne out over these past many years; the boilerplate about Pierce is all about his near-death experiences, the lingering damage — shot liver, double pneumonia — of a body ravaged by having lived too hard, which is a euphemism for saying he loved putting powder in his nose and his arm. We are sad this is the case, thrilled by the music, thrilled he’s still alive, admire him for his honesty. We are relieved, on some level, that he has paid a price, but one that — based on the evidence at hand: a new record, and a great one at that — has not been too dear. We know that the benefit of this ecstasy and agony, this yin and yang, has been simply incredible rock’n'roll music: dense, sui generis even as it has been dipped, like a celebrant in baptismal water, in the deep pools of the Velvet Underground.
Sweet Heart Sweet Light is variously thrilling, beautiful, a little sappy, uplifting. It is a glorious rock’n'roll album, exciting and pretty in turns. Pierce’s affinity for taking minimal numbers of chords and drenching them in maximalist orchestration — not just strings and horns, but wicked guitar feedback and blues harp, trilling piano and gospel choruses — is back, fifteen years after Ladies and Gentlemen. Spiritualized’s music is, at times, so over the top, and also so simple: R&B informed by the Brill Building’s lessons taught to young Lou Reed. ”There She Goes Again” meets “Heroin.” We find spirituality in the ecstasy that comes from music, not music that comes from Ecstasy. For us, Spiritualized’s cup runneth over. We are so glad that Pierce has survived to deliver something this pleasing, both to his old audience and, potentially, given the amazing run of media coverage these last few weeks, to new ones.
Whether Pierce’s current recovery from liver failure, and the regimen that is keeping him from drink’n'drugs, is long lasting or not, we rejoice — yeah, that’s the word — at his clear-eyed current state. One day at a time. Easy does it. But easy as some of the new album may be on the ears — and it is; he has succeeded in creating a pop album — it gets to that same place, that thrilling dangerous place, that Lou Reed and the Velvets also brought us to. ”Street Hassle” may hide within Pierce’s music like a Nina in an old Al Hirschfeld cartoon — it’s always there someplace, from Spaceman 3 to Spiritualized — and he pays it full reverence. On this one, to use Lou’s words, Pierce is “going for the kingdom if I can.” But it’s not at the end of a plunger, syringe and needle. Not high, on liver medicine not blurring drugs, Sweet Heart Sweet Light comes from something deeper, and more beautiful still — from Jason Pierce’s emmense creativity and the deep wellspring of talent within.