Spiritualized Songs in A&E(Castle) Buy it from Insound
“I think I’ll drink myself into a coma”, begins the central song on Spiritualized’s terrific new album, Songs in A&E. The song, Death Take Your Fiddle, is central because it gets at the core tension in Jason Pierce’s best work – the tension between the will to live and the desire to die. This tension accounts for his fascination with guns, but also with fire, the source of both light and destruction. His best songs, elsewhere but especially here, feature the fractured voice of a man with a razor hovering over his wrist, set against chords that repeat and swell; a body that refuses to give up against a mind unable to go on. Think of the 4th movement of Mahler’s 9th Symphony, in which the dying composer pits his will against his failing heart, over and over, until the inevitable arrives, or slips away.
Pierce has been at this for a couple of decades. It all took shape on 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, still seen as the album by which their output is measured. But what came out of that period was a growing fascination with orchestral grandeur, which eventually swamped and drowned the basic material. It has taken Pierce 7 years and two albums to recover - but recover he has. Songs in A&E is the most assured, focused set of songs Pierce has come up with. People can argue about the medicinal benefits of a druggie masterpiece like the 17 minute Cop Shoot Cop…, and whether the new one suffers from the lack of a similarly hypnotic epic, but there’s no denying the confidence and directness on display here. Nothing demonstrates this clearer than the garage rock of Yeah Yeah, sounding like something inexplicably left off the Nuggets collection, complete with a mind-numbingly simple guitar riff and handclaps. It’s like he’s saying rock never got any better than this, than the Seeds, the Count Five or any number of bands formed in the wake of the British Invasion that had only one earth shattering tune in them, as if the songs gave birth to the bands for the sole purpose of writing themselves.
This song isn’t typical of the album, but it typifies the approach, which is scaled back and simple. Pierce focuses on melody and feeling above all else, getting closer to gospel than the 50 gospel choirs he might have used before ever did. The orchestra and the choir are still there, but as background and support. They are never allowed to overwhelm, which seemed to be the intention by the time of Let It Come Down. The only indulgences are the “Harmony” interludes, but these are minor and provide needed respite from the emotional journey. One can theorize about the effect his serious illness had on the album, but the songs were reportedly written before that, so we can’t attribute their strength to a ‘second chance at life’ vigor. What it might have changed is the presentation which is as non-digressive and unadorned as I’ve heard him. Maybe all that over-the-top bluster seemed beside the point. Maybe he couldn’t bring himself to bury the heart of the songs under six feet of orchestral dirt.
I’m gonna go way out on a limb and say that this is their best album yet. I know the Ladies devotees will balk at this assessment, but I feel compelled to make it. Hey, I love the tripped-out Spiritualized too, but this is a great collection of straightforward songs and the band milks them for all they are worth and NOT A DROP MORE – which is the crucial distinction.6 June, 2008 - 17:59 — Alan Shulman