The first time I saw Spiritualized live, I was maybe 21, and I was absolutely determined that I would not experience them sober. They were playing in Rochester, about a 90-minute drive from where I was going to college in Syracuse, and I brought a gallon jug of Carlo Rossi merlot — absolutely disgusting shit — in the car with me. I spent the entire ride just obliterating myself. My friends Andy and Ashlea, who were driving, would have to tell me to put the thing on the floor when we pulled up to toll booths. By the time we got to the show, I was just gone. I remember Jason Pierce standing off to the side of the stage, remaining in profile the whole time, never once looking at the crowd. And I remember loving it. I remember nothing else. In their two decades of existence, Spiritualized have gone from making music about mind-obliteration to addiction to recovery to near-death experiences to hard-earned okayness, and from endorphin-rush early love to heartbreak to recovery to middle-aged domestic bliss — all without much altering their sound. But I think I was right to experience them while utterly fucked up that first time. You can break down their music into component parts, into influences and ideas and motivations, but I don’t know why you would. It’s more about the physical feelings of need and contentment, and how those things can bleed into each other — sensations that somehow become even more real and tangible and intuitive when you can barely stand up.
Lazer Guided Melodies, Spiritualized’s first album, turns 20 today. When the CD first came out, its 12 songs were separated into just four tracks, all around 15 minutes long, which was a fucking horrible pain in the ass if you were trying to isolate one so that you could put it on a mixtape or whatever. But that idea — that the album wasn’t 12 songs, that it was really four suites of music, or that it was really really just one thing that you should hear at once — certainly works with the music, with the endlessly patient ebb-and-flow of their own particular dreampop-gospel thing. Jason Pierce, when he made it, had just parted ways with Spacemen 3, and Spiritualized’s music certainly brought plenty of the feelings over from his old band. You’d expect it to be something of a transitional affair, like how those early New Order albums have gradually decreasing levels of that old Joy Division sparse bleakness. There isn’t. It’s all there, fully formed: The slow cresting guitar chimes, the deadpan-mumble vocals, the sounds that could be keyboard or guitar or something else and you can’t tell and you don’t care but Jesus it sounds amazing.
Pierce made the album when he was just falling in love with Kate Radley, the band’s keyboardist, and it must’ve been weird for her to be playing the songs that are clearly about her. It must’ve been weirder still when they made Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space five years later, and she was still playing on the songs, but now they were about how point-of-death depressed he was about breaking up with her. Her voice is all over the album, floating in harmony just behind Pierce’s on a few songs, slowly counting to 200 while deep in the mix on the stunning album closer “200 Bars.” But even with her presence there, you can that tell it’s pretty much a one-man show, a band all about one guy’s idea of how music should sound. Pierce has pushed his sound in all kinds of directions in the years since Lazer Guided Melodies, but he’s always kept steadfast to that idea of how music should sound. And so Lazer Guided Melodies itself is an absolutely wonderful album, one worth repeat plays and celebration. But it’s also earned its place in history because it was the beginning of a long, glorious project, one that’s still going strong now. Pierce released another great album just last month. He’s a living treasure. And as great and important as Spacemen 3 clearly were, Lazer Guided Melodies is the moment it all snapped into hazy focus.
The last time I saw Spiritualized, it was 2008, and they were playing at the Pitchfork Music Festival right around sunset. I probably wasn’t stone-cold sober, but I definitely wasn’t falling down drunk, the way I’d been before. My wife and I had spent the morning walking a few miles through downtown Chicago, trying to find the movie theater we’d done a bad job Google Mapping so that we could see a matinee of The Dark Knight. Chicago was beautiful that day, and we talked about how we could see ourselves living there, leaving New York finally, moving someplace where people just radiated a weird contentment. That dizzily sunny feeling lingered all day, and it meant I was pretty much mush by the time Spiritualized played — just as close, then, to that feeling of need and contentment as I’d been when I first saw them, but for totally different reasons. Pierce faced the crowd that time, but they were still very much the same band, playing very much the same kinds of songs, and I was moved in a way I can’t really describe. A few weeks after that show, my wife was pregnant with our daughter. A few months after it, we packed up all our shit and moved to Chicago to start a family. I’m not going to say Spiritualized had anything to do with that. But I am going to say that they made perfect sense at both of these moments. And they still make perfect sense.
So yeah, Lazer Guided Melodies. Great record. Here are some songs.