A writer friend of mine recently gave me some advice: One of the hardest stories to sell is one about a consistently excellent band releasing another strong album. It’s not a comeback, it’s not a severe stylistic left turn, it’s just an artist continuing to refine their sound after many years in the game, and therefore there’s no narrative to be ascribed.
This has often felt to be the case with Spiritualized, a band that has plugged along for more than two decades now, never quite seeming to reach the point where they feel part of some zeitgeist or where they produce THE definitive album, but cranking out unwaveringly excellent material once every two to four years. Spiritualized has, at this point, reached “survivor” status. Coming out of the wreckage of Spacemen 3, the group was initially formed when Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman) had a falling out with that band’s other frontman, Peter Kember (aka Sonic Boom), and wound up stealing the rest of Spacemen 3 and continuing on rechristened. That was, more or less, an illusion, as Spiritualized has essentially always been Pierce’s project, as he regularly fires everyone and starts from scratch. With an ever-changing cast of players, Pierce has taken Spiritualized from an early-’90s trance-rock band loosely associated with shoegaze, dabbled in the Britpop craze that dominated the mid-’90s, and then remained as an indie mainstay of the ’00s even as his contemporaries faded or disintegrated.
All of this while never quite breaking out, really. Spiritualized plays large-ish clubs and theaters in America, and it’s unlikely anything will happen to change that at this point in the band’s career. Part of the reason is obvious — Spiritualized is weirder than you might remember given the relatively classicist-leaning nature of the last few albums. Pierce is prone to noisy outbursts, as interested in free jazz roars as filthy garage rock sludge, but has, at different points in his career, situated the fervor amongst trippy drones or introspective, more instrumentally or structurally conventional pop songs. Conventional, that is, in that they recall ’60s and ’70s balladry, not because they would have much pop clout these days.
Whether genre-wise or thematically, the description of Spiritualized appears to be all over the place, or at least comprised of polarities. Drugs, of course, have always been a perennial topic for Pierce, whether in Spacemen 3 or in Spiritualized. Somewhere during Spiritualized’s trajectory, he switched from writing about drugs as mechanisms towards a willed oblivion to fixating on addiction and its toll. Perhaps consequences became more important in relation to the other imagery Pierce mines frequently: religion. Again, he oscillates, occasionally seeming to dwell in and celebrate the sin, sometimes seeking redemption. The most interesting stuff occurs when Spiritualized swirls it all together, the transcendent states of drug euphoria or religious ecstasy indistinguishable from each other amongst synth drones that could be unnerving or warmly inviting depending on your perspective, the sickness of addiction inextricably linked to the near-death experiences and meditations on mortality that litter Spiritualized’s music as well as Pierce’s biography.
Somehow, Pierce has always managed to collapse all of this into a signature sound to the point that, indeed, there’s never been a severe left turn for Spiritualized stylistically. Ironically, the non-story of consistency might be what makes Spiritualized unique, that it’s Pierce’s singular vision that’s both setting and glue for the various strands that coalesce to form the Spiritualized sound. The reliable elements of Spiritualized have allowed for a catalogue that appears consistent, without a story, but is in fact able to surprise over and over, whether you hear a tiny, previously unknown detail in a six minute drone or whether you listen to “All Of My Thoughts” for the first time in years and are stunned alert when its reverie explodes into frenetic bursts of harmonica and brass. The following is a list of Spiritualized’s albums ranked from worst to best. If there are acolytes out there for Amazing Grace, they can argue its merits in the comments.
Start the Countdown here.