Never let it be said that Jason “J. Spaceman” Pierce isn’t a funny guy. The name of the latest Spiritualized album, Songs in A&E, proves that he has a sense of humour, albeit a dark one. The letters in the title don’t indicate the key signatures of the disc’s tracks. Rather, they refer to Accidents & Emergencies, the ward at the Royal London Hospital where Pierce spent a few weeks in 2005 recovering from a bout of pneumonia that almost killed him. With that in mind, it’s hard not to hear a reflection of the singer’s near-death experience in certain of the album’s songs, such as “Death Take Your Fiddle”, which contains the lines “So death take your fiddle/Play a song and I will sing along” and “Think I’d like to take myself to heaven”. “Sitting on Fire” seems even more direct: “It’s so hard to fight when you’re losing/I got a little tear in my soul/In my own time I am dying/Can’t even hold what I own.”
The fact is, however, that Pierce penned all of the lyrics for Songs in A&E before his hospital stay, and he says they are not autobiographical. Reached by telephone at a Toronto tour stop, the Spiritualized front man admits that it’s tempting to read the record as a foreshadowing of his own brush with mortality. “All the songs were really harrowing to listen to after the event, because it seemed like they prophesized the event,” he says. “But I don’t believe in such things. You can make anything fit with hindsight. You can say, ”˜You know, I’m really glad I put my left shoe on first instead of my right this morning, because it meant I wasn’t hit by the train later in the day.’ You can make anything work.”
The songs, Pierce has said, are actually about the travails of a fictitious family—apparently a royally fucked-up one. Spaceman’s plan was to take a different approach to writing a record by stepping away from the strictly personal. Interesting, then, that Songs in A&E makes a more immediate connection with the listener than any previous entry in the Spiritualized canon. Chalk it up to how the tunes came to be: Pierce sat down with an acoustic guitar (a 1929 Gibson he found in Cincinnati, to be precise) and started playing. While that hardly sounds revolutionary, it’s a new way of working for the former Spacemen 3 member, who usually composes by singing his musical ideas into a tape recorder. The result is far from an “unplugged” collection—witness the elegant chamber strings that decorate “Sitting on Fire” and the feedback that slices through “Yeah Yeah”—but these songs hew closer to rock standards than Pierce’s usual productions.