Spiritualized's Sweet Heart Sweet Light is over-the-top and awesome
Sweet Heart Sweet Light (Fat Possum)
At this point, you pretty much know what you’re going to get from a Spiritualized album before you hear so much as a note. The long-running English space-rock act’s mastermind (and sole original member), Jason Pierce, never strays too far from his core concerns, whether musical or lyrical, so it’s how he presents them that makes or breaks a Spiritualized record.
In that regard, Sweet Heart Sweet Light can be considered a resounding success. In fact, it’s arguably Pierce’s best record since Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, which might be Spiritualized’s high-water mark. I say “Pierce’s best record” because, with the exception of guitarist John Coxon, no one else who is now in the band was around when Ladies and Gentlemen came out in 1997. Which is not to say that the current edition of Spiritualized is made up of hired guns or new recruits—guitarist-keyboardist Tony “Doggen” Foster, drummer Kevin Bales, and keyboardist-percussionist Tom Edwards have been in the fold for over a decade. In any case, this lineup is intimately familiar with Spiritualized's masterpiece, having played it in its entirety at shows in 2009 and 2010. (A remastered and expanded version of the album came out in ’09.)
Comparing each new Spiritualized effort to Ladies and Gentlemen has become standard operating procedure for critics. It's a bit lazy, admittedly, but this time it’s coming straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth. Pierce has said that revisiting the 1997 LP partly inspired the sound of Sweet Heart Sweet Light, and it shows. And yes, that means it’s grandiose, stuffed with orchestral sections and gospel choirs, but still bristling with junk-sick drone-rock electricity. Pierce lets it be known right off the top that he’s pulling out all the stops. The album begins with an elegant, strings-embellished instrumental (the minute-long “Huh? (Intro)”, which almost seems like a fake-out start once the real, opening track “Hey Jane”, starts. Clocking in just shy of nine minutes, “Hey Jane” churns along like the Velvet Underground on amphetamines before crashing to a dissonant halt. Then it starts up again, propelled by a hypnotic motorik beat and embossed with choral backing vocals. It's ludicrously over the top, and it's also pretty awesome.
Pierce made this record under the influence of some heavy drugs. Not the recreational kind, but ones prescribed to treat a long-term liver disease. (The last Spiritualized album, 2008’s Songs in A&E, was partially made while the frontman was recovering from pneumonia. For his sake, let’s hope this doesn’t signal the start of a pattern.) Knowing that lends some weight to the reflections on mortality scattered throughout the songs, such as these lines from the softly swaying ballad “Freedom”: “And I’m living my life on a prayer now/Got no right to be here.”
Then again, that’s precisely the sort of sentiment he’s always expressed in his songs, and you’ve got to wonder exactly what the avowedly nonreligious Pierce would hope to achieve by praying. Yet pray he does. He’s been writing nominally Christian-themed numbers since the 1980s, when, as a member of Spacemen 3, he recorded “Walkin’ With Jesus” and “Lord Can You Hear Me?”. Sweet Heart ends with a pair of these almost-hymns. On the quietly elegant chamber-pop tune “Life Is a Problem”, he entreats Jesus to be “my bullet and gun”: “Kill all my demons, and that would be fine/But I’d be reloading all of the time.”
Then comes the unabashedly epic “So Long You Pretty Things”, which builds to a sky-searing, full-gospel climax and finds Pierce imploring “Help me, Lord” but also admitting “I’ve got no reason to believe in anything.” The song is actually a meditation on the folly of pouring every ounce of your soul into something that will never give you a return on your investment (“The music that you played so hard ain’t on your radio,” Pierce sings), but for all that, it sure as hell sounds like a celebration of the redemptive power of rock ’n’ roll. And maybe that’s what Pierce has been praying to all along.