Jason Pierce had bad timing. The Spritualized frontman put everything into Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, his band’s third album. It’s a 70-minute masterwork about drugs and heartbreak and drug-induced depressive jags and heartbreak-induced drug binges and gospel choirs and guitar blues-drones and free-jazz squawk-outs and sheets of pulsating feedback and orchestral bliss-outs. And he had the misfortune to release it at the same time, more or less, as another guitar-centric middle-English rock band released its own sad and expansive and experimental third-album masterwork. Of those two albums, OK Computer is the one that still gets the most burn today, partly because it’s simply one of the best and most beloved rock albums of all time and partly because “technology is moving too fast, and I’m losing all sense of where humanity starts and ends” is a more relatable conundrum than “my girlfriend left me for the lead singer of the Verve, so now I have to shoot all this heroin.”
Honestly, it’s a testament to Pierce’s brilliance and to the incandescent force of Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space that OK Computer didn’t quite suck up all the oxygen in the room. Both albums were rightly received as classics almost immediately, and NME even named Ladies And Gentlemen as its #1 album of the year that year. (OK Computer got #2.) And in some houses — like, say, mine — Ladies And Gentlemen still gets as much play as OK Computer, if not more. While both albums are composed and cohesive suites of music, full of peaks and valleys, that used their studios as instruments, they’re also very different albums. Radiohead were working from a societal perspective, taking in all the dehumanizing bullshit around them and thinking about what all the noise does to all of us. And they also left a shred of hope, a vague ember of a feeling that humanity could still win out. Ladies And Gentlemen, by contrast, is a fully personal work, one that documents Pierce’s own specific trip to hell. And it offers no hope of salvation whatsoever.
Pierce has virulently objected to the idea that Ladies And Gentlemen is an album about Kate Radley, his girlfriend and keyboardist, who was messily dumping him and secretly marrying the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft around the time they were making Ladies And Gentlemen. (Ashcroft’s band would release its own symphonic masterwork Urban Hymns a few months later, and other than Ashcroft’s alien-cheekbone situation, Ashcroft and Pierce looked a whole lot like each other. Kate Radley had a type!) Pierce insists that he’d written some of the most heartbroken songs on Ladies And Gentlemen before he and Radley broke up, and he’d presumably prefer that we believe it’s a breakup album about heroin, another thing that was ruining Pierce’s life at the time. Still, it’s hard to believe that Pierce’s romantic situation didn’t play a role. For one thing, Pierce’s whole story was extremely public. This was, after all, the height of the Britpop era, and the British weekly music press was practically conceived to cover this sort of salacious gossip story. It’s more likely, I think, that all the sad and fucked-up things happening in Pierce’s life were swirling together when he made the album, and that he responded by turning all of them, taken together, into a symphony of numb sadness.
Radley’s voice is the first thing we hear on the album. She’s the stewardess, blankly and soothingly intoning the album’s title before any music comes in. She sounds reassuring, but that message — that we have now left the known world behind completely, that we’ve entered a dark and perilous and unknown place — is frankly terrifying. And everything that follows on that stunning opening title track futher reinforces the point. Strings and guitars play Pachelbel’s Canon, the piece of classical music that gets played at basically every wedding. And Pierce, sounding lost and wounded, sings lightly-rewritten versions of the wise bon mots that Elvis once sang on “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.” (That koan was going to be a direct quote, but the Presley estate objected. On later reissues of the album, those original Elvis lyrics were restored.) Over all that swelling, romantic beauty, Pierce coos, “All I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away.” There have been many, many songs in the history of recorded music that have been both sad and pretty. But there aren’t too many that have been that sad and that pretty.
Ladies And Gentlemen doesn’t keep a single mood throughout. Its snarl-stomping blues-rock numbers like “Come Together” and “Electricity” had as much coked-up swagger as anything Pierce’s Britpop peers were doing, and they also had screaming walls of guitar and wailing gospel choirs blowing them out into something bigger. Its gooily blaring instrumental interludes are as far-out as anything Pierce had done with Spacemen 3, his old band. And it ends with “Cop Shoot Cop,” a 17-minute skronk-blues epic about the numbing repetition of smack addiction that never becomes numbing repetition itself. (As someone with very little patience for long songs, I can’t remember ever skipping “Cop Shoot Cop,” even though it came at the end of the album. Even in his staring-into-the-void moments, Pierce was enough of a songwriter to keep things interesting.)
Still, for me, the album’s greatest moments are its moments of pure, swooning beauty, and there are plenty of them. There’s “All Of My Thoughts,” with its glowing piano and its crystalline organ-sustain and its sudden, raging freakouts. There’s “I Think I’m In Love,” which almost sounds like a Chemical Brothers remix of itself. (It’s not, but the Chems would do their own remix soon enough, and that’s great, too.) There’s “Stay With Me,” all swaying Lynchian texture. There’s “Cool Waves,” with its mournful strings and its gospel melodies and its vision of sweet oblivion. There’s “Home Of The Brave,” which makes absolute fucked-up hopelessness sound like an almost ideal state. And there’s the grand and wrenching seven-minute centerpiece “Broken Heart,” which has maybe the loneliest French horn in drug-rock history. These songs might be about bottomless despair, but they were still pretty enough to soundtrack Volkswagen commercials.
Still, the bottomless despair comes across. Pierce was putting all these oceans of gorgeosity behind sad-sack sentiments so eloquent but unspecific that they could’ve been about Radley or heroin or both or neither. And even with all that vagueness, they’re still heartfelt enough to kick you in the gut: “I just don’t know what to do on my own / All of my thoughts are of you,” “I don’t even miss you, but that’s cuz I’m fucked up / I’m sure when it wears off, then I will be hurting,” “Sometimes have my breakfast right off of a mirror / And sometimes I have it right out of a bottle, come on.” Lyrically, my favorite song on the album might be “I Think I’m In Love,” a devastating one-two punch of bravado and self-doubt, with the latter always shadowing the former: “I think you’re my dream girl / Probably just dreaming / I think I’m the best, babe / Probably like all the rest.”
Amidst all this, Pierce never allows a possibility that things will get better, that the depths of his depression will ever give way to anything else. Twenty years later, Pierce is a survivor and a family man. He made it through liver therapy and chemotherapy, and now he’s living in London and raising a couple of kids and occasionally releasing quasi-experimental solo records and scoring low-budget movies and playing anniversary shows that celebrate the masterpieces he made when he presumably couldn’t picture himself alive 20 years later.
There won’t ever be a record like Ladies And Gentlemen again. It’s a product of its time. People were buying CDs, and people were excited about Britpop, so a record label paid what must’ve been hundreds of thousands of dollars so that the guy who made Lazer Guided Melodies and Pure Phase could put together his 70-minute orchestral junkie-heartbreak masterwork. The album didn’t really sell, and future Spiritualized albums stripped things back, probably out of necessity as much as anything. (They’re still great, though. There are no non-great Spiritualized records.)
Ladies And Gentlemen is a deeply personal album, a transmission from an auteurist mind, and that’s probably why its revved-up rockers and its head-blown instrumentals mesh so beautifully with its twinkly lullabies. (Back when lovelorn dipshits like me made mixtapes for crushes, it was almost impossible to pick a Ladies And Gentlemen song for a mixtape. Almost any of them other than “Cop Shoot Cop” would’ve worked, but the whole thing demanded to be heard as a single piece.) And it’s a sad reality of the present-day music industry that labels can’t write blank checks to genius auteurs anymore. Most of them wouldn’t know what to do with the money anyway. The era that gave us Ladies And Gentlemen is lost, and it’s not ever coming back. That’s too bad. But at least we still have the album, which still sounds like some kind of miracle.