Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt When Spiritualized Played Pitchfork Music Festival
Performing seated and reading your lyrics off a music stand does not rock according to the usual understanding of the word. But Jason Pierce is not your average rocker. Backed by a crack squad of musicians and a trio of grinning, dancing backup singers, the man known as J. Spaceman put on a powerhouse display on the first night of Pitchfork Music Festival without even standing up.
What’s more, he did so without even dipping very far back into Spiritualized’s rich catalog. The band has been going since 1990, and if they’d hung it up after 2008 or 2003 or 1997, they’d have already banked a legendary discography. My personal favorite album of theirs is 2001’s Let It Come Down. They have no song more iconic than 1997’s “Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space.” Neither of those releases factored into Friday’s performance. Other than “Shine A Light” from 1992’s Lazer Guided Melodies, there were no songs from the ’90s and only two more from beyond the past decade. And although I would’ve liked to have heard “On Fire” or “Come Together” or “Let It Flow,” this is the rare legacy act for whom a heavy emphasis on newer material does not feel like malpractice. Pierce can line up a string of classics without relying on the oldies; he’s kept releasing brilliant material well beyond the point when many veteran musicians fall off.
Friday at the Red Stage, Spiritualized were spectacular. Song after song, Pierce and his band conjured powerful swells of gospel-infused psychedelic rock, music that made agony feel ecstatic and ecstasy feel infinite. Sometimes, as on the pulsing, stomping opener “Hey Jane” — on which soaring lead guitar and backup vocals blurred together into streaks of sonic neon — the music plunged from order into noise-bombed chaos. Sometimes, as on “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go,” the band let the beauty build unfettered. There were callbacks to the rock ‘n’ roll canon: solos that channeled George Harrison on the country-tinged slow jam “I’m Your Man,” frenetic bass that evoked the Velvet Underground’s “European Son” on “The Morning After.” Whether in the piano-led quiet of finale “So Long You Pretty Thing” or the electrified bluster of “She Kissed Me (It Felt Like A Hit),” the band never ceased to be majestic.
On some level it is surprising that Spiritualized have held on this long. For many years Pierce’s music delved deep into spiritual crises and struggles with substance abuse; his thematic focus was almost monolithic for a while, and the same experiences that informed his writing could have easily killed him. The ache in songs like “Lord Can You Hear Me” has always come across as authentic. After the chemical and the existential came the medical: His life was threatened at least twice, first by double pneumonia in 2005 and then liver disease in 2012. And yet as Pierce has cleaned up and settled down in recent years, his music has been no less inspired. The euphoric love songs that form the foundation of his recent sister albums, 2018’s And Nothing Hurt and this year’s Everything Was Beautiful, are as staggeringly gorgeous as anything he’s done.
Pierce has spent decades tapping into the same musical veins over and over again, a process that would yield diminishing returns for most. Yet he manages some kind of magic trick every time out, cycling back through similar religious imagery and sonic frameworks while somehow making them feel fresh. Near the end of Friday’s set, the band played back-to-back bangers from Everything Was Beautiful, the eruptive rock ‘n’ roll hymn “Let It Bleed (For Iggy)” and the lovestruck airborne epic “The A Song (Laid In Your Arms).” Rather than retreads, these tunes felt like refinements of the Spiritualized ethos — graceful, expansive, and vibrantly, contagiously alive. My only lament is that at just an hour, the set was far too brief for a band that has been so good for so long.
“She Kissed Me (It Felt Like A Hit)”
“Shine A Light”
“I’m Your Man”
“The Morning After”
“Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go”
“Let It Bleed (For Iggy)”
“The A Song (Laid In Your Arms)”
“So Long You Pretty Thing”