Spiritualized Albums From Worst To Best
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.
7. Amazing Grace (2003)
At the risk of derailing all that stuff I said about consistency, I'm going to suggest that Amazing Grace is the one less-than-excellent entry in Spiritualized's oeuvre. Elsewhere in the band's catalogue, Pierce has indulged his garage rock interests to great effect, most notably in the Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating In Space tracks "Come Together" and "Electricity." On Amazing Grace, it's a scuzzy, distorted rock that's a lot rawer and more straightforward than anything else Spiritualized has put out, and it's not really a great look for them. I'll give a pass to "This Little Life of Mine," because it starts off the album with the lyrics "This little life of mine/I'm gonna let it slide," which is one of the most perfectly nihilistic couplets Pierce has ever uttered — or, in this case, growled over positively guttural guitars — and he's uttered a lot of them. While that track's cacophony at least displays some Spiritualized DNA, the other three rockers here feel as if any of the retro-rock early-'00s bands could've conjured them up.
The rest of the album is slow-burners that traffic in blues and gospel the way plenty of classic rock bands of the '60s and '70s did before Pierce. To varying extents, blues and gospel have always been part of Spiritualized, but Pierce often combines them in unexpected ways with droning psychedelia or chaotic jazz. Here, like the rock songs, it's pretty straightforward, which means some of them feel inert and rote, while Pierce is able to bring others (primarily "Oh Baby") to a level worthy of his other achievements. Mainly, Amazing Grace stands out as a rickety uneven album amongst a body of work that is known for being extremely considered and controlled.
6. Lazer Guided Melodies (1992)
In a lot of ways, Lazer Guided Melodies was a continuation and refinement of the work Pierce had produced in Spacemen 3, which makes sense considering at this point Spiritualized was still comprised of musicians who had been in Spacemen 3. Aside from the stripped back (by Spiritualized standards, mind you) Amazing Grace, Lazer Guided Melodies may also be the simplest Spiritualized album. That may seem an odd assertion for an album coated in production flourishes and firmly committed to establishing Spiritualized's reputation for really, really loving guitar pedals, but many of the songs within the churning soundscapes are really actually quite poppy in a '60s psychedelic pop kind of way, particularly "I Want You" and "Run." Those songs end the first — and maybe the strongest — of four suites that comprise Lazer Guided Melodies. At this point in his career, that seemed to be where Pierce excelled; later on the album, there are glimpses of things that would become defining elements of Spiritualized, but they're in a more nascent form. The gospel-tinged ballads are gauzier, not yet cathartic, the drones more aimless, refusing to establish the dramatic tension Pierce would become so adept at creating. In a way, this is nit-picking. Lazer Guided Melodies is a gorgeous album start to finish, even if a touch front-loaded in the songwriting department. It's hazy, there's no arguing that, but there's an attractiveness in its indistinguishability. The main issue is that, between its direct lineage from Spacemen 3 and its nature as a sketchbook for future achievements, Lazer Guided Melodies doesn't feel quite like Spiritualized yet.
5. Pure Phase (1995)
Pure Phase is no misnomer. The second album under the Spiritualized moniker, it is a transitional work, coming at a time where Pierce was actually playing with the group's name, attributing this album to Spiritualized Electric Mainline, and claiming that they had been known as Spiritualized Lazer Guided Melodies. It is also perhaps the moment where Pierce was most fascinated with straight noise and ambience, sandwiching a more traditional song here and there amongst ten minutes of droning synths and guitars so drenched with effects as to no longer represent the sound of an instrument, but rather seeming to capture the sensation of some imagined sound. Like if waves breaking upon a beach were made of dissipating storm clouds rather than the ocean.
If you want an album to have feel, essence, Pure Phase is great, loaded with soundscapes that can feel alternatively expansive enough to lose yourself in or propulsive enough to take you somewhere specific, which ultimately means it's formless enough for you to write your own meaning onto it. What that also means is that, aside from a few pivotal hinge points — such as "Lay Back In the Sun," one of Spiritualized's best songs — this is not a very song-driven affair, and could feel less focused as a result. Anyone who knows anything about Pierce's control-freak tendencies can tell that's probably not the case — the brief "Born Never Asked," conjures worlds in two minutes, a mournful violin, and layers of distorted sound that bleed into "Electric Mainline," which is another almost eight minutes of repeated melodies and drone for a reason, not just for druggy aimlessness. The last eighteen minutes are mainly instrumental and spacey, seemingly unrefined and drifting on the surface but in reality crucially paced, so the empty oscillations of "Pure Phase" pay off in the lachrymose strings of "Spread Your Wings," and then, with just two minutes left in closer "Feel Like Goin' Home," a definitive guitar downstroke ushers in Pierce's voice, clear amongst the noise, offering a note of resolution at the album's end.
Nevertheless, the specificity of the Pure Phase experience precludes it from standing out amongst the Spiritualized albums that came later, those that managed to wed "album as experience" with "album stocked with damn good songs," and may sideline it as a remnant of early, shoegaze-inflected Spiritualized most appealing to diehards.
4. Sweet Heart Sweet Light (2012)
While stories of Pierce's health dominated the release of Songs In A&E, it was Sweet Heart Sweet Light that was really characterized by a sickness. Its cover — "Huh?" emblazoned in a green octagon — was a reference to Pierce's wavering mindset under the influence of medication as he underwent experimental chemotherapy for liver disease. Ironically, the album seems to define itself in opposition to the blurriness of Pierce's experience, as it embraces more traditional songwriting than many previous Spiritualized efforts.
Where Sweet Heart Sweet Light could've descended into the raggedness of much of Songs In A&E, Pierce seems to be focusing on the affirming and uplifting rather consistently. Despite an accompanying video that unnerved many for its violence, opener "Hey Jane" goes from a bouncy '60s-esque pop song to a propulsive outro that uses just enough choir to be cathartic without being overblown. In some ways, Sweet Heart Sweet Light is stripped back in a way Amazing Grace attempted, but does so in a way that is both brighter and somehow more essentially Spiritualized.
It's not all sunshine, though. Before stumbling a bit in the second half, Sweet Heart Sweet Light peaks early with the monolithic "Headin' For the Top Now," a churning, unrelenting charge of a song that should be counted amongst the top ten, maybe even top five, Spiritualized songs ever. It seems to look back to the more nihilistic moments in the Spiritualized catalogue. Like "Out of Sight" or "Lay Back in the Sun" before it, there's something about "Headin' For the Top Now" that feels like the perfect soundtrack to jumping off of very, very high things — the sort of things you don't survive jumping off of. Or, maybe not. "Headin' For the Top Now" is noisy and maybe shambolic, but builds to a sense of resolution rather than dissolving into rampant guitar and horn squeals, and might result in the template for a new sort of Spiritualized classic.
3. Let It Come Down (2001)
Faced with the impossible task of following up Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, Jason Pierce did what many bands do after their defining album: he went even bigger. That didn't seem possible. In a lot of ways, Ladies and Gentlemen and Let It Come Down are the What's the Story Morning Glory? and Be Here Now of the Spiritualized catalogue, the only problem being that Ladies and Gentlemen is already sort of a (more accomplished) Be Here Now, which destined Let it Come Down to be really ludicrous. And, somehow, it worked.
It shouldn't, but maybe it does because it's over the top in a different way. Ladies and Gentlemen will probably always remain the most stylistically diverse and expansive Spiritualized album, but Let It Come Down just sounds huge, and expensive. Utilizing some 120 musicians, Pierce crafted an album that was pure bombast in a way that was slightly new for Spiritualized. There are almost no remnants of the noisiness of free jazz improvs of other Spiritualized outings. Instead, this stuff is big in a Spector-ized wall of sound kind of way, Pierce's increasing focus on gospel taking him back to the forms of big orchestral pop songs from the '60s and '70s. This album is pure bombast, but this time it's all swelling strings and movie-soundtrack horns and timpani.
Pierce went this route when dealing with subjects that would seem to warrant the most subtlety. Addiction is dealt with directly on "The Twelve Steps" and "The Straight And Narrow." "Out of Sight," one of the best tracks here, fixates on the same sort of self-destruction that had popped up throughout Ladies and Gentlemen and would later get a much dirtier treatment on "This Little Life of Mine." Elsewhere, the album is dominated by lovelorn songs coated in enough orchestration that in lesser hands would easily spiral into the saccharine, and yet Pierce's perennially gravelly and world-weary voice seems to ground it all. Let It Come Down is an overwhelming experience, the sort of the album that is just so much that it can be hard to take in one sitting. You can't really tell if the resulting excess is religious or decadent, and that's maybe what makes it such a rewarding listen. Spiritualized is always most interesting when the profane and sublime are crashing together.
2. Songs In A&E (2008)
For an artist that's never really fit into any mainstream narrative, Songs In A&E was fairly overshadowed, or at least unquestionably defined, by its specific narrative. During the time between the 2003 release of Amazing Grace and when Songs In A&E finally saw the light in 2008, Jason Pierce almost died after experiencing a whole slew of issues at once, including pneumonia that pushed him into respiratory failure. The album title is actually derived from the time he spent in the Accidents & Emergency ward. So, it all seemed very obvious — the death imagery on Songs In A&E, a tangible fixation on mortality, these all seemed fitting results from Pierce's near-death experience in 2005. The only thing is that he wrote most of the album before all that happened.
Credit it to prescience, then, but Songs In A&E feels like it earns its gospel elements and meditations on mortality more so than any other Spiritualized album. It's simultaneously ragged and simpler in a way that Amazing Grace sought while reinstating the dramatic production flourishes that made it feel like Spiritualized. Many of these songs started on acoustic guitar and still do, so it feels even more emphatic when the chorus of "Soul On Fire" — one of the most unabashedly sweet and poppy melodies and lyrics Pierce has written — hits, or when the marimba embellishments of "Baby I'm Just A Fool" pull it headlong into violin-lead freakouts at its conclusion.
So maybe it's a product of writing a story back onto the album based on circumstances that only partially altered the final product, but Songs In A&E feels like an outlier in the Spiritualized catalogue for its personal resonance and its willingness to feel broken down. It doesn't hide Pierce's experiences in volumes of reverb and effects, or in dozens of horns and strings. The arrangements are there, but they're smaller, deployed differently, intended to build not to overwhelm. The result is an album where you feel like you can hear Pierce really striving for the big moments, really earning them, whether that means fighting his way out of a hospital bed or from three chords on an acoustic guitar to the sort of orchestral outro he used to start songs with. It might not be the most typical Spiritualized album, but it remains one of their most engaging.
1. Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (1997)
To be honest, there are rankings in this list that could quite possibly vacillate from day to day. Most of Spiritualized's material is on similar footing, but maybe someday Amazing Grace will strike me in another way, or I'll decide Sweet Heart Sweet Light refined and improved upon its predecessor Songs In A&E. This is not the case with Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. That was always destined to be number one. Because Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is a perfect album.
When all the major '90s British bands were putting out their generation-defining works in the middle of the decade, whether it be Oasis' first two records or Blur's Parklife or Pulp's Different Class, Spiritualized was putting out Pure Phase. Pierce only joined up when everyone was doing the darker or more excessive follow-ups — Be Here Now, Blur, The Verve's Urban Hymns, and Ladies and Gentelmen all came out in 1997. Pulp followed with This Is Hardcore in 1998. But Pierce seems outside of this context, perhaps because he'd already been around so long, perhaps because he issued his own definitive work only in this "excessive follow-up" mold, without the streamlined pop predecessor that's supposed to serve as an entry point.
Ladies And Gentlemen should be a big shuddering mess based on how it appears on paper. Instead, everything here feels absolutely pivotal. Each extra guitar line or added bunch of horns or bonus minute of grungey squalor feels like it contributes to an immaculate whole. Every element of Spiritualized is on display: free jazz ("The Individual"), screeching noise meltdowns ("Cop Shoot Cop"), spacey bliss ("Ladies And Gentleman We Are Floating In Space"), trippily pulsating rock ("I Think I'm In Love"), heartbroken songs that go orchestral pop ("Broken Heart") or blend it with shoegaze ("Stay With Me"). The title track combines, of all things, Elvis references and one of Pierce's gentlest melodies over guitars processed to the point of sounding like alien whale songs. "Come Together" takes a '60s paean for peace and turns it on its head, making it maybe sinister but at least snide, a choir's evocation of the title repeatedly punctuated by paranoid horn bursts that eventually rip the song open into a headlong conclusion.
That act, the ripping, seems crucial to this album, which may seem paradoxical since, even at its noisiest, Ladies And Gentlemen is meticulously orchestrated and intentional. That's the point though — with this album, more than any other, Pierce ripped open the paradox of Spiritualized, the simultaneous drive towards redemption or nihilism, the equal reliance on pop melodies or noise instrumentals, and stitched them back together into one big masterpiece. If there is a unifying term for the myriad focuses of Spiritualized, it's that Pierce's music is always sonically and thematically about altered states, whether it's gospel crescendoes chasing spiritual redemption or psychedelia and drug binges chasing transcendence. Ladies And Gentleman We Are Floating In Space combines all of that seamlessly. The experience of listening to it is itself an altered state.