Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: 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.