Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light

Spiritualized have never recorded a bad album. Depending on your feelings about Amazing Grace, they’ve never recorded one that’s less than great. (That one had “Hold On,” so I’m on the pro-Amazing Grace side of that particular divide.) Ever since the band formed, Jason Pierce, the only constant member, has hit on a style that just works every time: Fragile hymns to lovesickness and addiction, sung in a disaffected monotone, and built up with so many waves of lovingly arranged instruments and expansive production techniques that they sound like cathedrals of light. With Spiritualized, Pierce has taken the nodded-out drug drones he made with Spacemen 3 and found the cold emptiness and longing that was at those songs’ emotional core, pushing them out to the front for everyone to see. Sweet Heart Sweet Light, Spiritualized’s new one, is about almost dying; Pierce recorded it after suffering a life-threatening illness and going through chemotherapy to treat it. But then, every Spiritualized album is about almost dying, or feeling almost dead. And so Sweet Heart Sweet Light’s real distinction is that it’s the Spiritualized album that makes Pierce’s desperation sound grander than anything he’s done since the stone classic Ladies And Gentleman We Are Floating In Space.

Ladies And Gentlemen is, of course, all-time canon material; it’s every bit the gigantic, expensive epic that Pierce wanted it to be. And Sweet Heart Sweet Light starts out by nodding in its direction. Opening song “Hey Jane” is almost a shrunken version of “Cop Shoot Cop,” the endless droning rising-and-falling free-jazz-infused epic that ended Ladies And Gentlemen. “Cop Shoot Cop” was about the endless hamster-wheel stasis of addict life, a feeling that it illustrated by dissolving into skronky chaos for long, extended clips before snapping back into the tense, tightly controlled groove at its center. “Hey Jane” does something similar structurally, but there’s more hope in it, with Pierce playing a sort of motivational speaker for the girl of the title, and the extended freakout bits proving sunnier than anything on “Cop Shoot Cop.”

Sweet Heart Sweet Light isn’t exactly a happy album, of course. (Sample lyric from “Hey Little Girl”: “Sometimes I wish that I was dead / Because only the living can feel the pain.”) But it’s not an album about having all the feeling beaten out of you, the way so many other Spiritualized albums are. Instead, it’s about trying to get feeling and control back. Listening to it back-to-back with Girls’ great Father, Son, Holy Ghost, you hear just how much Christopher Owens must’ve drawn from Pierce over the years, and not just in his use of tremolo guitars and gospel backing vocals. The resilient fragility that Owens projects is something that Pierce has always shown. On Sweet Heart, Pierce sounds like an older, more beaten-down version of Owens, but one who’s just as determined to find some goodness in his life. It’s not a feeling that comes easily. On “Freedom,” Pierce does heartrending work evoking the feeling of being unable to salvage a relationship with a fuckup: “Freedom is yours if you want it / But you just don’t know what you need / I made up my mind to leave you behind / Because you just don’t know what you’re feeling.” That’s a rough sentiment, and Pierce knows that it’s all the rougher because he’s been the fuckup in that situation before.

Musically, Sweet Heart Sweet Light is almost paralyzingly gorgeous. As ever, Pierce is playing around with a lot of elements here: Choirs of backing vocals, swelling string arrangements, emotive piano runs, twisty Pharoah Sanders horn eruptions, guitar fuzz. The strings, especially, are absolutely killing me this time around: The melodramatic soundtrack flourishes of “Too Late,” the “Kashmir”-style Middle Eastern accents of “Get What You Deserve,” the monolithic grandeur of “Headin’ For The Top Now.” It’s a big album, an hour long and with plenty of songs that extend past six minutes, and I’m only just beginning to internalize all its peaks and valleys. But it’s an absolute treasure. Given how close Pierce recently came to the brink of things, we’re lucky that we still have him around, and that he’s still carving these vast monuments to his own weaknesses.

Sweet Heart Sweet Light is out now on Fat Possum. Stream it at NPR.

Other notable albums out this week:
• Moonface’s buzzing, desperate With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery.
• Battles’ remix collection Dross Glop.
• Future’s weirdly emotional robo-rap opus Pluto.
• Lushlife’s arty-but-hard rap LP Plateau Vision.
• Allo Darlin’s indie-pop collection Europe.
• The split LP from Woods and Amps For Christ.

Comments (25)
  1. Really good album, but the mixing on this thing (especially on “Hey Jane”) is terrible. Still glad to see it doing so well reviews-wise.

  2. Did you mean to say “never recorded a bad album”?

    • Sure did.

      • then I guess I should check out some more of the others. I Really like Ladies and Gentlemen, but haven’t really listened to much else that they’ve done.

        • I would go with Tom’s suggestion (below) about picking up Pure Phase next, but Ladies and Gentlemen seems to be their undisputed high point. If that record doesn’t send you over the moon, then the others are not gonna do it either. I think this is the best Spiritualized album since then, but I’m not a fan of all the work in between, especially Amazing Grace.

          I don’t know how to put this any kinder, so I’m sorry if it really offends….but Tom, is definitely drinking the Spiritualized Kool-Aid. Keep that in mind. I agree that the strings are amazing on this one though. Maybe some of the best orchestration on any Spiritualized release to date.

      • One minor technicality that might merely be a devil’s advocate kind of thing. I’ve got a copy of _Lazer Guided Melodies_ on CD, and it’s a grueling, almost joyless, listen because the CD maintains the four song cycle, even though each song contains multiple parts–to the point where each discrete part is separated from the previous one by silence. I get the whole space-rock-floating-in-space-taking-drugs-to-make-music-to-take-drugs-to-listen-to and all, but I always wanted a little more freedom to float through _LGM_, well, a little more freely–to be able to skip from part to part with a bit more ease.

        I’ve never heard the record on vinyl (I’ve never even seen a copy in person, actually), so that medium might present a different experience. I also know that, apparently, some CD versions allow for skipping around (I’ve never seen or heard one of those, either). I’m just pointing out that my copy of _LGM_ is a bit tough-going.

        • To Yoni: Check out Pure Phase next.

          To Joseph: I feel your Lazer Guided Melodies pain. I avoided listening to it for awhile because of what you mentioned. Coincidentally enough, I picked up “LGM” on vinyl today when getting my CD copy of SHSL. Spiritualized recently re-released his first three albums on vinyl. They’re kind of pricey but obviously worth it. Also, LGM has “Shine A Light” — arguably the greatest Spiritualized song.

        • There’s ways to get LGM in discrete tracks, either through DIY cutting, or just paying a few extra bucks for a version with the tracks separated. I tended to find that it was a better album for background listening at first anyway, so the “four suite” approach didn’t bother me. At this point, it’s my favorite Spiritualized album, and I can’t think of a song I want to listen to that isn’t worth sitting through the one or two right before it, though it does have some great “singles” (Run, I Want You, If I Were With Her Now). Probably the best thing I’ve ever seen at any show I’ve ever been to was their version of You Lie, You Cheat, just totally descending into chaos, leading into Shine a Light.

          I was thinking this morning that this album sort of reminds me of LaGWAFIS if it they just released the demos, like before they cleaned up the production. I think the more raw production really works at this stage of his career though. You can kind of hear the desperation in his voice a little better.

  3. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • Will someone thumbs down this person again for me? Wanted to get him for both the shameless plug and the actual content of his comment, but could only do one.

  4. That is a very disturbing video.

  5. just going to point out that the above video is nsfw, just in case anybody else accidentally catches a glimpse of boob at the office like i did

  6. Picked up my CD copy today. In the liner notes there is an interesting line after the thanks yous and dedications that reads:

    “Play loud and drive fast.”

    Reminds me of my comment discussion about Chromatics new album. It is great advice for both albums.

    “Headin’ For The Top Now” has been the stand out for me. The cacophonous noise waves recall older Spiritualized. The 7-8 minute length gives me plenty of time to enjoy the ride. Loving all the long songs.

    I feel like there has to be a longer version of the last song. That fade-out is a cop-out.

  7. Reminds me of harder version of Girls….which is incredible.

  8. Girls: Spiritual-lite

  9. i love it that you guys at stereogum ar making these weekbyweek reviews! awesome

  10. I’m with you on Amazing Grace. (under) ‘Rated X’ is one of my favourite Spiritualized songs, so the album it’s on can’t be all that bad. ;-)

    SHSL is growing on me. Today’s favourite is Too Late. I’d agree with Trevor Ikrath though, Jason’s vocals don’t sit too well in the mix.

  11. What did I just watch? Awesome song. Video may haunt my dreams though.

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