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Spiritualized - Songs in A & E Print E-mail
Monday, 08 September 2008
ImageNever a particularly prolific artist, Jason Pierce was, after 15 years and four full-length studio albums, nonetheless, burned out. Having completed a critically acclaimed exploration of gospel, blues and roots rock variants with 2003’s Amazing Grace, by the summer of 2005 nothing was sounding right. In an attempt to get outside of his songwriting persona, he was writing a series of songs based on character-driven vignettes, but nothing was adding up to an album – just a bunch of disparate pieces. To make matters far worse, just as he was getting ready to pull the plug on the album, he nearly died himself, ending up in the hospital with pneumonia that left him weak and skeletal and with little ambition to make music. But only then did he see the connecting thread for the album -- death.

Having never shied away from such dire topics before, with a catalog of songs brimming with references to drug addiction and violence, it’s only natural that Pierce should make an album-long meditation on the theme. Titled Songs in A&E after the British abbreviation for an emergency room – “accidents and emergencies” – the fifth Spiritualized album picks up somewhere between the simplified strums of Amazing Grace and the space rock operas of the band’s back catalog. That Pierce wrote these songs before he nearly died is nothing short of prescient, as an eerie pallor hangs over the entire album, from the angelic voices of the opening intro to creaky fiddle and drones of “Goodnight Goodnight,” a cracked junkie lullaby wherein Pierce closes the song by repeating the words “funeral home” three times. Often, it’s pretty creepy stuff.

With death rattle wheezing over simple electric guitar strums, “Death Take Your Fiddle” is startling in its immediacy, a haunted tale of a man who feels lonely when the urgency of death isn’t near to comfort him. “Think I’ll drink myself into a coma, and I’ll take every pill I can find,” Pierce mumbles nonchalantly over oohing backing vocals and weeping guitar lines. “But morphine, codeine, whiskey – they won’t alter/ the way I feel now death is not around.” What makes the song so disturbing, however, is its familiarity, as the sing-songy dirge feels pulled from the American folk tradition, with its gorgeous sway often distracting from the baleful narrative. That said, despite the queasy feel of the material, the arrangements certainly don’t lack for robust craftsmanship, built from a lush assortment of sighing strings, clanging bells, flitting horns and ethereal backing choirs. A master arranger, Pierce often starts songs off simply with a few straightforward guitar chords then overlays the piece with every kind of sticky sonic dross he can find, and the effect only accentuates the already unsettling quality in the writing. “Daddy, I’m sorry, I borrowed your gun again/ shot up your family/ a shock for the city,” Pierce coos on “Borrowed Your Gun,” continuing the grim roll call, creating a modern prodigal son tale with a protagonist returning home when he has “run out of bullets again.” But like most tracks on the album, the beguiling strings and choirs give the song an epic and uncomfortable feel, the contrast between the beautiful and the grotesque creating a cognitive dissonance that colors the entire release.

When not ruminating on his demise, Pierce creates a profile of a desperate and lovesick man, wrapping the brittle heartbroken balladry of “Don’t Hold Me Close” in reverb-drenched keyboards and whooshing atmosphere that add to the sense of doomed devotion while bringing to mind the band’s floating-in-space heyday. Even more frantic is “The Waves Crash,” purportedly a song written about a father saying goodbye to his daughter, stumbling away in sadness and disbelief while clarinets swirl around swooning strings and immaculately layered crescendos.

Not all of the album benefits from such dire focus, however, as Pierce’s attempts to include a few love songs on such a resolutely despairing album mostly fall flat. Despite a fragile acoustic strum and eerily mewing keys, “Sitting on Fire” never quite overcomes a few trite rhymes and an unnecessarily verdant string-laden ending. Even worse is ‘Yeah Yeah,” a woolly garage rock throwaway that never digs much deeper than its exclamatory title. And despite a few dark rejoinders, “Soul on Fire” seems out of place, with its soaring chorus and cliché promises of devotion and fidelity not fitting with the themes of despair and desolation.

Ultimately, Pierce’s original intention of making a song cycle of fictional vignettes appears little in the final reading of the album. No names, no places, no theatrical details – it’s really just more of what Pierce does best. But despite a few tracks that find him at the undeniable top of his game, the album ultimately feels a bit slight, with a few transcendent moments held together by also-ran tracks and instrumental connecting pieces. Whatever the case, the album’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, and regardless of its inconsistencies, it features many of Pierce’s most disarmingly beautiful songwriting touches. And while it was mostly written and recorded before he nearly fell silent forever, it’s an album that resonates with the lived experience of someone who has spent much of his waking life staring into the prospect of eternal sleep. Anyone who wants to travel to the edge of death could find no better companion.

Despite being carefully and elaborately layered, Songs in A&E has a surprising thin and brittle feel, something that perfectly suits the desperate feel of the album. Much of that is probably due to Pierce’s preference for using no studio effects and allowing the room to provide any reverb or echo effects, and the resulting arrangements are bathed in a massive wall-of-sound enormity. As such, it will sound pretty much the same regardless of your stereo equipment, though high-end speakers and headphones might be necessary to pick out the more intricate sonic details.
Preview it at iTunes: Spiritualized - Songs In A&E

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