Friday, May 09, 2008

Cardiac Arrest

Spiritualized - Songs in A&E (Spaceman, 2008)

Somewhere, somehow, Jason Spaceman lost his spacesuit. After all the justified acclaim that greeted ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’, he became lost in self-consciousness, one of the gravest afflictions for a musician and composer. Either through trying to meet the expectations of others, or by analysing his own motivations too intensely, he became bogged down by preconceived ideas of how his music should sound. ‘Let It Come Down’ had its moments, but its vaunting and grandiose ambitions could only ultimately be thwarted. At its worst, it dipped more than a big toe into schmaltz and sentimentality. ‘Amazing Grace’ was a bigger mis-step though - a guileless reaction to its predecessors that sounded simplistic and uninspired, drawing too transparently from its influences and adding little of its own.

The signs for ‘Songs in A&E’ looked better. The title is crucial – a dry piece of wordplay juxtaposing Pierce’s recent period of near-fatal illness with his tendency to concentrate on a narrow harmonic range (once an intriguing part of the Spiritualized dynamic, now looking increasingly like a substantial limitation). It suddenly seemed as if he might once again be both instinctive and inspired. These songs were all written before that illness though and, in retrospect, last year’s Acoustic Mainlines tour gave a pretty strong hint of what to expect. This is very much another step on Pierce’s route to redefining himself as a classic songwriter and arranger – perhaps in the mould of a Burt Bacharach, a Brian Wilson or a Jack Nitzsche.

As a result, there’s little of the early Spiritualized’s eerie, mesmerising ambience – and even less of their mid-period noise fetish. In fact, the bulk of ‘Songs in A&E’ sounds tepid – even its grandest songs sounding closer to Embrace or Richard Ashcroft than to the genuinely stirring delights of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen…’. ‘Songs in A&E’ lacks the dramatic impact of that album’s orchestrations, or its articulate expression of emotions. It also lacks the unique otherworldliness of ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’ or ‘Pure Phase’.

Spiritualized songs used to be about creating an enveloping and haunting sound, pregnant with mystery and emotion. Think back to ‘I Think I’m in Love’, ‘You Know It’s True’, ‘Angel Sigh’ or ‘Let It Flow’. The songs here are often centred on blandly strummed acoustic guitar, a focal point that makes Pierce’s limitations as a musician considerably more transparent. Listen to the two chords of ‘Baby I’m a Fool’, and it suddenly becomes clear how little in the way of harmonic or melodic interest Pierce can conjure. It’s only when the brass and strings come in at the end and we at last get some textural variation that the song becomes in any way exciting. Even then, there’s a cloying sense of déjà vu that reveals how Pierce has failed to progress beyond his over-familiar musical concerns here. ‘Baby I’m A Fool’ could easily have appeared, in rawer, less polished form, on one of the early Spacemen 3 albums. Perhaps this is simply further evidence that this line-up of Spiritualized simply doesn’t have the feral brilliance of the group that dazzled the Royal Albert Hall ten years ago and who were unceremoniously dumped for such achievements.

A much bigger problem is posed by Pierce’s voice though. I’ve defended his singing in the past, but even I have to concede that he’s drifted too far into the realms of the nasal whine here. Authenticity needn’t be important – but the child-like (yes, child-like is the right choice of words – ‘Don’t Hold Me Close’ intentionally sounds like a child’s lullaby), grating tone of his voice renders the songs both unconvincing and irritating, a problem not helped by his increasingly repetitive linguistic tropes.

Yet again, he’s talking about ‘a hurricane inside my veins’ or wanting to get higher, or proclaiming ‘heaven it ain’t easy, you know I’ve got the scars to show I’m here’. Even a cursory look at the song titles shows that his insistence on reducing songs to the age-old drugs/religion parallel is seriously wearing thin now. There’s ‘Soul on Fire’, ‘I Gotta Fire’ and, more bizarrely, ‘Sitting on Fire’. Sitting on Fire?!?! - Jason – if you need to remove some troublesome hair, there are cleaner and safer methods! None of these songs actually come close to capturing the intensity their titles require. If you’re going to write in language dominated by fire and fever, you need to sound, at the very least, fiery. On the rhythmically and melodically monotonous ‘I Gotta Fire’, Pierce merely sounds like he’s in need of a good laxative.

The best of the gospel-tinged ballads that dominate the album is ‘Death Take Your Fiddle’, which uncomfortably samples the noise of a respirator, and comes closest to capturing a peculiar mood – perched on the precipice between life and death perhaps, and slightly redolent of Johnny Cash. Even this is marred by Pierce’s voice though, pinched as it is into a weedy whine. Didn’t his voice once sound distant and vulnerable, as if overwhelmed by the musical cacophonies and orchestral swells he concocted around himself? Now foregrounded, it merely sounds untutored and, worse, uncharismatic. One critic memorably described listening to Spiritualized’s great single ‘Feel So Sad’ as being akin to ‘bathing in a vat of acid’. It would be difficult to liken anything here to such a surreal experience.

There are some further plus points, particularly among the more upbeat moments, some of which at least attempt to push the group into new territory. It’s a small mercy that there isn’t yet another deliberate rewrite of ‘Electricity’ here. ‘You Lie You Cheat’ makes more effective use of Pierce’s snarling voice by pitting it against harsh distortion and a rolling 6/8 rhythm. It has propulsive energy and righteous anger. Better still is ‘Yeah Yeah’, with its insistent Bo Diddley-esque washboard groove. Pushed gleefully onwards by handclaps and tremolo guitar, it’s one of the few moments here that sounds both joyful and exciting and it demonstrates what Pierce could have achieved with ‘Amazing Grace’ had he been a little less didactic.

Elsewhere, the numbered ‘harmony’ interludes that break up the album are minimal and touching. I’m not sure of the provenance of these tracks, but I suspect they may be part of the soundtrack Pierce composed for Harmony Korine’s film ‘Mr. Lonely’ (hopefully a more knowledgeable reader might fill me in or correct me here). They are tender, sweet and quietly majestic – and I wonder whether it might not have been more interesting and unexpected for Pierce to base an entire album on this aesthetic, rather than falling back on age old clichés once more. If the language has been exhausted, why not focus on the music?

The chief problem with ‘Songs in A&E’ is that it has little feeling or substance beneath the surface. The bulk of it feels affected – it has little in the way of edge or passion and as a result ends up sounding contrived, conceited and really rather boring. It seems to be based on a somewhat false, misguided sense of soulfulness that emphasises ideals of extreme emotions over instinctive gestures or expressions. The best of the Spacemen 3 recordings and the first three Spiritualized albums ought to be enough to secure Pierce’s reputation, but he’s doing plenty to undermine his right to a place in the pantheon here.

This may well get glowing reviews elsewhere in the music press but, honestly, if critics came to this album without Pierce’s history or backstory (particularly his recent experience), would they be in any way impressed by its sheer lack of originality? That Pierce’s vast musical knowledge goes well beyond the traditional songwriters’ canon – incorporating Krautrock, free improvisation, electronica and contemporary composition – cannot in any way be gleaned from listening to ‘Songs in A&E’. Even if we accept that his aims have shifted from a broad interest in sound and musical exploration to simply being accepted as a great songwriter, he’ll need to at least write some more great songs in order to achieve such recognition. This is another one for the growing stockpile of 2008 disappointments. In comparison with the fearlessness and brutal honesty of Portishead’s ‘Third’ it sounds predictable and limp. If Pierce was once floating in space, he now sounds earthbound and dangerously exhausted. That respirator is needed to recharge him in more ways than one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree. Over the last five or so years, Pierce has done a lot of work with Spring Heel Jack, and their loose collective of boundary-pushing improvisers. What puzzles me is how little of this has infiltrated his work with Spiritualized, where it all sounds so formulaic.