There’s a particular sort of mental gymnastic routine that music critics must bust out when we’re considering new works from old idols: Is it really that good? Or do I just want it to be that good? We, as a profession, have heaped so much praise on so many late-period Bob Dylan albums, and some of us don’t want to get caught again in the act of hero-worship. So a great album from someone who’s already made plenty of great albums somehow gets more scrutiny than a great album from someone who’s just showed up, fresh and scrubbed. That’s where we schizophrenically force our fan-brains and our critic-brains into different channels. As a fan, I am extremely psyched to hear every new Rancid album. As a critic, I have to acknowledge, to myself and to the world, that Rancid haven’t done anything truly transcendent since Life Won’t Wait, or maybe since Indestructible. As a fan, I love Bun B like he was my own uncle. As a critic, I snorted out loud when The Source gave five mics to Trill OG.
All of which is to say: The new Spiritualized album is fucking great. It’s awesome. It’s suspiciously awesome. Jason Pierce has been putting out Spiritualized records for 28 years. If you include his years of service with drug-rock sungazers Spacemen 3, he’s been on the job for well over 30 years. And he’s never put out a record that’s anything less than great. (Amazing Grace is the worst Spiritualized album, and Amazing Grace fucking rules.) And yet it doesn’t seem possible for a new Spiritualized album to be as good as And Nothing Hurt is.
I didn’t believe it at first. I didn’t trust my own impression. I didn’t want to out myself as an aging, minivan-driving father who went through half of college with Britpop hair, which is absolutely what I am. So I’ve thought hard about this, and I’ve come to one inescapable conclusion: And Nothing Hurt is one of the year’s best albums. It’s a legacy project, it’s Jason Pierce repeating himself, and it has basically nothing to do with anything else happening in music right now. But it’s glorious.
I don’t know whether And Nothing Hurt is the best Spiritualized album, since what would that even mean? This guy made Lazer Guided Melodies and Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, albums that have been in my own personal canon for decades, and maybe yours too. It’ll take a whole lot more time before we know where And Nothing Hurt belongs in his catalog. What I do know is this: Every time I listen to And Nothing Hurt, I feel myself being lifted and swept away and moved. Every time I hear it, I feel a little more alive.
Pierce has said that And Nothing Hurt may well be his last album. Pierce is only 52, but he’s already been through heroin addiction and withdrawal and nasty public heartbreak and chemotherapy and low-level rock stardom — none of which are exactly good for anyone’s life expectancy. He’s also spent years obsessively working on this album, an undertaking he isn’t eager to go through again. Pierce has said that, after playing some big and loud rooms to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Ladies And Gentlemen, he wanted to capture some of that big, monolithic sound for himself. But he didn’t have the budget. Spiritualized once had the resources to craft an orchestral 17-minute noise-jazz odyssey about shooting smack and to get Dr. John to play piano on it. But the world has changed. And instead, Pierce had to find a way to capture that sound in his house, by himself, with his laptop, teaching himself all these newfangled recording techniques from scratch. He pulled it off.
And Nothing Hurts isn’t entirely a solo-recording odyssey. Twenty different musicians and singers worked on it. Pierce did book studio time and bring in outside musicians as he was finishing the album. But it’s not a band album. Pierce figured out how to do just about everything himself. He figured out how to make everything sound perfect — right down to sampling the exact right string sounds from old classical records rather than hiring people to play those string parts. And it does sound perfect: The ringing guitar chimes on “Let’s Dance,” the squealing horn wigouts of “On The Sunshine,” the Stonesian moaning slide guitar on “Damaged.” A guy screwing around on Pro Tools took years and somehow created the sound of an album recorded with limitless constraints, in a state-of-the-art old-school studio. That’s beautiful.
Pierce has his own sound, and he’s never deviated too far from it. So And Nothing Hurt, like every Spiritualized album, pulls little bits and pieces of blues and Southern soul and garage rock and gospel, and it does all of it with an epic and starry-eyed sensibility, all those sounds sometimes transforming into a blissed-out whirlwind. And Pierce wraps all those sounds around his own tired, craggy voice — the voice of an aging Englishman who’s been everywhere and done everything and is now just about ready to go to bed.
Pierce is probably too young to make a staring-into-infinity Time Out Of Mind-style mortality album — though Dylan himself was only four years older than Pierce is now when Time Out Of Mind came out. But And Nothing Hurt is very much an album suffused with feelings about aging and death. On the warm and elegiac “The Prize,” Pierce murmurs, almost to himself, “Gonna be shooting like a star across the sky / Gonna burn brightly for a while / Then you’re gone.” He sounds peaceful, even content. It’s the sound of a man accepting an inevitable fate.
And Pierce also spends much of the album grappling with his own faults and regrets, learning to deal with them. On the dizzy whirl of “On The Sunshine,” a song that reminds me of the psychedelic bugouts that the Chemical Brothers always put on the ends of their ’90s records, Pierce snarls, “If youth is wasted on the young, then wisdom on the old / And let it go / Come on, let’s roll.” And the lazily purring “I’m Your Man” is a beautiful admission that Pierce isn’t the person that he might want to be: “If you want wasted, loaded, permanently folded, doing the best that he can / I’m your man.”
A few of the songs on the album are goodbyes to a lover, and they’re warm and heartfelt and deeply, cuttingly cruel. Opening track “A Perfect Miracle” starts off as a love song, Pierce singing over lilting ukuleles about all the nice things he’d like to do for someone. And as the song goes on, bit by bit, he lets this person know just how much space he needs: “My mind is a mess and I’m needing you less / Give me a call in a little while.” And then, later on: “Lately I’ve found I don’t need you around / I don’t think it’s working out anyway.” “Sail On Through,” the last song on the album, doesn’t let her down any easier: “I’ll tell no lie, I’ll tell the truth / You know, I just don’t need to be with you.” We might expect a 52-year-old father to sing about the pleasures of domesticity, but that’s not Pierce. Instead, he sounds happiest when he’s singing about leaving for the next town on “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go” or dancing to Big Star with someone during last call on “Let’s Dance.” He was born a rambling man, and now he’s made the saddest, prettiest, fullest, best road-trip album I’ve heard in recent memory.
Six years ago Spiritualized released Sweet Heart Sweet Light, their last album. On that same day, another permanently sad drug-pop bluesman released his proper debut album. That was Future’s Pluto. In the six years since that day, Future has released five solo albums, two collaborative albums, eight mixtapes, one soundtrack, and untold numbers of singles, loosies, and collaborations. For that entire time, Pierce has been silent, playing the occasional live show and tinkering with string sounds in his London house. I love a lot of the music that Future released during that intervening period, and I wouldn’t trade any of it. But I’m just as glad that Pierce sat at home, figuring things out, and then came along to utterly destroy us with a record this astonishing. You’re not fooling yourself. And Nothing Hurt really is that good.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Paul McCartney’s Greg Kurstin-produced Egypt Station.
• Chic’s long-awaited, guest-heavy disco return It’s About Time.
• Joey Purp’s Chicago rap album QUARTERTHING.
• Ava Luna’s art-pop LP Moon 2.
• Mothers’ tough, expressionist Render Another Ugly Method.
• Paul Simon’s old-songs-revisited collection In The Blue Light.
• Swamp Dogg’s experimental gutbucket reemergence Love, Loss, And Auto-Tune.
• Colleen Green’s mysterious full-length project Casey’s Tape / Harmontown Loops.
• JEFF The Brotherhood’s good-time rocker Magick Songs.
• Steven A. Clark’s new-wave soul LP Where Neon Goes To Die.
• Archers Of Loaf leader Eric Bachmann’s solo album No Recover.
• Ruston Kelly’s solo country album Dying Star.
• Mirah’s thoughtful and lovely Understanding.
• Shannon Moser’s emotive acoustic album I’ll Sing.
• Adult.’s hissing electro LP This Behavior.
• North Americans’ instrumental guitar album Going Steady.
• Fórn’s doom wallow Rites Of Despair.
• Sauna Youth’s noise-rocker Depths.
• Everlast’s big comeback Whitey Ford’s House Of Pain.
• Clutch’s dependable riff-ripper Book Of Bad Decisions.
• Chilly Gonzales’ self-explanatory Solo Piano III.
• Pile’s compilation Odds And Ends.
• Waxahatchee’s Great Thunder EP.
• Counterparts’ Private Room EP.