Spiritualized, it is often remarked, tend to polarise opinion. Few people just ‘like them’, or ‘think they’re alright’. More usually, they are either eulogised as avatars of transcendental bliss who manage to marry core values rock’n’roll and dirty ass garage blues with flights of orchestral and gospel choir sumptuousness, all done through a psychedelic filter that is part bright ’60s wide-eyed naïveté and part darker ’80s industrial drone; or they are purveyors of turgid, bombastic, repetitious, junky fodder, pawning ideas, riffs and arrangements that were already clichéd first-time around on to an ignorant, stoned, uncritical and unsuspecting audience, too bewildered to get off the sofa to change the CD, or even press shuffle on their iPod. For me, the highs have always far outweighed whatever perceived lows there might be, and Sweet Heart Sweet Light is no exception.
As with pretty much every Spiritualized album, SHSL comes with a disturbed and disturbing back story, this time involving Jason Pierce being housebound for a year while undergoing drug treatment for liver disease (probably interferon therapy for Hep C is the educated guess, although the Spaceman remains coy about confirming this diagnosis in interview). Last time round, 2008’s Songs in A & E appeared shortly after JP had the near death experience of winding up in intensive care with double pneumonia and fluid on his lungs. But what Spiritualized album has ever been made under ideal circumstances? As far back as 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space the pattern was set, with keyboard player and lover Kate Radley ditching Jason for The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, thus paving the way for LAGWAFIS to be forever construed as a ‘break up album’. To be fair to Pierce, he has never milked these autobiographical stumbling blocks in a crassly tabloid way, denying any direct correspondence between the life and the work. Still, it must make for a novel experience, to be fuzzy and wasted on legally prescribed drugs for a change.
Pierce has said in interview that this time out he wanted to make a rich man’s album, presumably meaning a Brain Wilson-type Smile extravaganza, with limitless time in the studio, although one would have thought he’d already had a fair bash at that with 2001’s Let It Come Down’s massed banks. However, as studio time is the most expensive part of recording, he solved this problem by setting everything up in his front room and, eh, working from home. Recording helped pass the time during his enforced reclusiveness and to make it even less taxing for himself, he decided to make a ‘pop’ album. But that didn’t work out as planned, as he discovered that that is the hardest thing of all to do, as by trying to keep things simple you are more exposed.
So, what of the results? Well, it’s pop, Jim, but not as we know it. But if you title your album Sweet Heart Sweet Light, the first song is called ‘Hey Jane’ and the last song is called ‘So Long You Pretty Thing’, it’s pretty obvious who you’re channelling. There’s a short intro called ‘Huh?’, replete with lush strings, which leads into the aforementioned ‘Hey Jane’, a nearly nine minute tale of a rock’n’roll heartbreaker, swathed in what sound like synthetic girl harmonies. It gets weird in the middle, in an ‘A Day In The Life’ ish sort of way: its breakdown is a breakdown, before it revs up again for an extended motorik outro. Then there’s the upbeat melody of ‘Little Girl’, undercut somewhat by the decidedly unpoppy opening couplet of ‘Sometimes I wish that I was dead/’Cos only the living can feel the pain’, before a superfuzzed squelchy psychedelic guitar solo kicks in. ‘Get What you Deserve’ continues the trippiness, its wig-out outro feedback squall awash in what sound like synth strings but are probably real ones, which also feature prominently on the following ‘Too Late’, a pleasant ditty that would not be out of place as a Eurovision contender.
‘Headin’ For The Top Now’ doesn’t justify its eight minute plus length, as its two chord groove never gets texturally developed enough: it tries to be ‘White Light/White Heat’ lite, but is not ragged or improvisational enough to make it. After this lapse, things recover swiftly with the predominantly acoustic ‘Freedom’, the politest kind of break up song. ‘I Am What I Am’ starts out riding on a murky, funky riff that would put you in mind of Dr. John’s gumbo swamp rock, so it comes as no surprise when you discover that the Night Tripper himself actually co-wrote and guests on the track, just like he did all those years ago on ‘Cop Shoot Cop’, which casts ‘I Am What I Am’ as a kind of mini-reprise of Ladies and Gentlemen….’s extended closer. It morphs into a call-and-response gospel pastiche which bears more than a passing resemblance to Talking Heads’ ‘Slippery People’ from Speaking In Tongues, and includes one of those ‘backwards guitars solos’, as we used to call them.
The minor key ‘Mary’ is the dark heart of the record, followed by the nursery rhymey hymn to Jesus ‘Life Is A Problem’ (not the old Sister O. M. Terrell song, by the way, despite Jason talking that particular obscure folk blues standard up some time ago). And so the stage is set for the life-affirming finale of ‘So Long You Pretty Thing’, which starts out as a banjo-plucked lullaby invoking that guy Jesus again, on which the Spaceman gets some vocal help from his 11 year old daughter, Poppy, before taking off for the outer reaches of the universe when the orchestra and gospel choir kick in. Is that the sound of a kitchen sink I hear? Well, why not? It’s a Spiritualized album, after all, and one that stands comparison with their best.