Darkness In Light

8 May 2012 | 6:25 pm | Staff Writer

More Spiritualized More Spiritualized

Our last brush with Spiritualized was at the Sydney Opera House, for a pair of gigs recreating the band's 1997 opus, Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. Jump forward a year and Jason Pierce (aka J Spaceman) is discussing the new and seventh Spiritualized album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light. The album's creation overlapped with a year of “pretty gruesome medical treatment” for liver disease, as did those Sydney dates. Pierce confirms he wasn't in good health during his visit, admitting, “I don't think I would have travelled if it wasn't at the Opera House.”

In the end though, he admits, “They were amazing shows, full of ecstasy, full of euphoria.” But his state of health, which shaped Sweet Heart Sweet Light so much because Pierce assembled and finished the album while housebound for treatment, wasn't the only thing that complicated the Ladies & Gentlemen… live show. Also worrying him was the idea of feeding a ravenous demand for nostalgia.

“Part of me felt like I'd just joined the catering industry, playing old music to people who knew exactly what they were getting. They knew exactly how those songs had made them feel in the past. The whole music industry is falling into that. Music that I love – rock'n'roll – is slipping into the past, which is inevitable. That's the passage of time. But the whole process has been speeded [sic] up by everybody's readiness to re-form their old bands or play their old music.”

If he's guilty of that to some degree, he has a solution: “One way to arrest that is to try desperately to make new great music.” And so we have Sweet Heart Sweet Light, his professed attempt at a pop album. It is that – clear-eyed and robust – and yet it still brings the healing warmth, desolate squalls and cosmic wonder that defined the six albums before it. Pierce may have challenged himself by thinking “pop” and working from the confines of home, but it's still Spiritualized.

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“I wanted to make a pop record, figuring I'd make it easy on myself. Now people are saying, 'It's a light record. You must have felt like that.' But it was a deeply dark time for me. What I thought would be an easy task was more difficult because there's nowhere to hide in pop music. You can't hide behind distortion or abstraction. It became really hard to get that record right, and I still don't know if I have. Sometimes it feels like I wasn't in my own head when I made it.” Asked if his medical treatment gave him that sense of dislocation, he answers, “That's a good word, isn't it? 'Dislocation.' I like that. I shall use that.”

Recording bedrock parts like drums and bass across the globe in such a way that they could be moved around later, Pierce brought everything together at home. There he sang all the vocals and manned the overdubs. We're not talking about a proper home studio, but “a laptop in the corner and two speakers next to that.”

Into that humble setting came his 11 year old daughter Poppy, who wrote and sang the laid-bare opening for the album's finale, So Long You Pretty Thing. Observing the beautiful simplicity in how children write, Pierce admits, “I could never have written those lyrics.” Originally Poppy's part formed the start of the album, not the end. But it fitted better as an introduction to So Long You Pretty Thing, making it a three-part song about “the way things slip away.” Yet it's not a dark track in the least; rather, it's uplifting. “You can hear the birds singing,” Pierce points out, “because the window at the back of the house was open.”

Speaking of multiple parts, lead single, Hey Jane, is a suite-like rollercoaster that drops jaws with its intense film clip documenting a violent day in the dramatised life of a transgender person. It's as if every Spiritualized song of the past were squeezed into a nine-minute piece that somehow works as one hell of a single. “In an odd way, the whole album is that kind of structure,” Pierce suggests. “All the songs lean against each other. They're all part of the same thing. The running order was pretty much intact from the start. The moods change as you go through it. I put down simple ideas and then come up with ten more ideas.

“That, to me, is making a record. It isn't just recording a rehearsed band in an afternoon. It's exploring where you can go and how much. You test the tolerances of it and see where the songs finally lie. In the end, they find their own place. Eventually it becomes too dense or too much, and you've pushed it as far as it can go. I can't make records any other way. I'd like all the songs to be three minutes, but that doesn't work most of the time.”

For all its storied pop elements – Too Late and the Dr. John collaboration I Am What I Am were songs written for soul legend Candi Staton that Pierce never had the courage to send her – Sweet Heart Sweet Light thrives on that denseness. But again, Pierce isn't hiding behind anything. Life Is A Problem is a signature Spiritualized hymn intertwining God and drugs, and others are just as naked.

Pierce relishes the influence of free-jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who agreed to play on Mary but ultimately couldn't do it. (His peer Evan Parker played on it instead.) What Pierce learned from these boundary-pushing jazz figures is that they don't dress up their music with rock's studio trickery. “It's all about an interaction with an instrument. I think I carried that through on this record. My voice is dry. There's no reverb. There's no studio effects. It's just the sound of those instruments being played and then balanced.”

Pierce has been through it all, formerly throwing himself into drugs even while influencing scores of bands with both Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized. But he's held onto his songwriting prowess and twin gifts for scope and catharsis. If the new album was more challenging than expected, he looks forward to touring it.

“That's when it all starts to happen. Playing live is like being in an avalanche. You're not trying to pin down the music; you're pushing it around the room.” He spent months memorising all the new lyrics so he wouldn't have to read them live, tapping the confidence a recent acoustic tour gave him. “Suddenly I realised I had a voice,” he recalls, “and I was writing songs that worked.”

The swaggering beauty of Sweet Heart Sweet Light doesn't mean that he'll attempt pop again next time, though. “I did this because I've never done it before,” he reminds us. “At some stages I thought this was the last album, because it kind of tidies up all the loose ends. All the different melodies that had been discarded or not worked through. Even now I wish I'd made it slightly different.”

Feeling around for that confidence, he adds: “But it's early days. Maybe it will grow on me again.”