Think heroin addiction is tough? Try making a record with double pneumonia. Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman) — the guy whose notorious narcotics abuse fueled 20-plus years of psychedelic swagger (the Spaceman 3 album Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To pretty much sums it up) — came down with a near-fatal case of pneumonia in the midst of recording Songs in A&E, the follow-up to Spiritualized’s Amazing Grace. Pierce had a few lyrics down, a few tracks recorded, but nothing ready for release. Suddenly he had to be rushed to the hospital, and A&E was put on indefinite hold. A hardened junkie had finally met his match.
That was 2005. Pierce didn’t get back to those songs until last year. And now in 2008, after scoring Harmony Korine’s film Mister Lonely, Pierce returns, lungs and all.
Considering Pierce’s career-long obsession with redemption — whether by the grace of God, heroin, women or all three — Spiritualized’s PR folks couldn’t have asked for a better back-story. And even though many of the songs were penned before the singer’s illness, it’s nearly impossible not to see Songs in A&E as precisely that: a record of struggle and salvation.
Thankfully, the music is nearly as perfect as the press. Except for the haunting instrumental interludes, most of A&E’s tunes revolve around the simple pleasures of a strummed guitar. There’s a laid-back, porch-swing vibe that suits the older Pierce well. A guy who came this close to meeting his maker is just glad to be around to sing his songs. Of course, this is a Spiritualized record, so there’s still the requisite bombast. But when the horns blare, the strings swoon and the choir raises its voice to the heavens, Pierce earns the catharsis. We feel his pain… and his pleasure.
The seven-minute ‘Baby I’m Just a Fool’ pulls this trick off nicely. Beginning with two-chord guitar and a mellow steel drum, Pierce adds a simple, almost child-like vocal melody, throws in the Hollywood strings and the gospel choir, ditches his guitar for the plaintive lines, “Heaven, it ain’t easy/You know I got the scars to say I’m here,” before driving the point home with a cacophony of rumbling snare, tambourine and giddy horns. It’s a familiar move, certainly, but one that Pierce has rarely managed so tastefully.
The story of A&E’s gestation has ultimately broadened Spiritualized’s appeal. Though Pierce’s earlier albums attempted to conflate heroin, Jesus and love into a single ecstatic experience — the idea being that if we understood one we could understand the other two — those records were still ultimately about drugs. (Hence the special packaging of 1997’s Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space in a mock prescription pill box.) Yet, with A&E, Spiritualized no longer seems best appreciated by junkies or Jesus-freaks. When Pierce sings, “I got a hurricane inside my veins and I want to stay forever” over rip-roaring guitar on the gospel rave-up ‘Soul on Fire’, the reference isn’t necessarily to smack. It could just as easily be to life itself — to the will to survive.
Pierce may never reclaim the glory of what remains his best album, Ladies and Gentleman… One misses its shimmering, organic electronics — the way the songs seemed to, as the title suggests, float in space. And A&E has its mistakes. Back-to-back garage-rockers ‘Yeah Yeah’ and ‘You Lie You Cheat’, though a good time, seem to belong to a different album, not the sober, reflective confines of A&E.
Yet A&E is worthy of our applause — if only for showing that Pierce remains one of the last true believers in the redemptive power of rock ’n’ roll. His record feels like one long sunny walk back from the emergency room into your lover’s open arms. And as overwrought and absurd as that sounds, it is to Pierce’s boundless credit that his music is just good enough to deserve the metaphor.