Sweet Heart Sweet Light

(Fat Possum; 2012)

By David M. Goldstein | 30 April 2012

On a superficial level, the new Spiritualized record would appear no different than its predecessors, still rife with the accusations of self-parody that have dogged Jason Pierce for years. The man traffics, as he always has, in grandiose space-rock and gospel leanings, and his words still lend themselves to everyone’s favorite parlor game: Jehovah’s Witness Literature, 12-Step Pamphlet, or Spiritualized lyrics? This is what Pierce’s cult fanbase has come to expect; no one will dispute that the “needle, meet vein” lovesickness of Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space (1997) is a masterpiece of its genre. (Y’know: space-rock gospel.)

But it’s tough to argue that Pierce has been treading water ever since. Not counting the massive “Complete Works” reissue project, only 2002’s choir-heavy Let it Come Down might be described as “very good.” Amazing Grace (2003) was a stripped-down garage rock experiment with all the import that description entails, and while 2008’s Songs in A&E was initially hailed as a return to form, bolstered by a backstory of how Pierce nearly died of pneumonia in the hospital prior to its release, it was accurately described by CMG staffer Conrad Amenta as, among other things, “safe.” I agree; it’s an entirely dull collection united by a few weak mortar squirts care of the series of “Harmony” tracks and lots of songs with the word “fire” in the title.

Oddly, Pierce nearly croaked before the release of Sweet Heart Sweet Light too, waylaid by a debilitating liver disease that required chemotherapy to correct (if you ingested all the pharmaceuticals that Pierce claims to have, your immune system would be shot to hell too). Except somewhere in the past four years, he apparently rediscovered his muse. Whether inspired by spending several dates last summer playing a fully orchestrated Ladies & Gentlemen onstage front to back, or from raising his now 11-year-old daughter (who gets a co-writing credit on the last song), Sweet Heart is the first Spiritualized album since Ladies that lives up to the challenge of the latter, and may one day be considered a hallmark in the same league. Judged by the degree and frequency of illnesses resulting in surprising success, Pierce is a one-legged Kirk Gibson hitting it out of the park in the ’88 World Series.

But what makes Sweet Heart such a strong effort? Let’s just call it the added whoosh! factor. When cueing up “Little Girl,” ones heart rate slows, sun shines on one’s face, one must cope with a certifiable perma-grin enveloped by beds of creamy Motown strings and an all-encompassing warmth permeating the whole album. Whatever deficiencies Pierce may sustain lyrically he more than makes up for with his skills as an arranger, and this is easily the most heavily arranged Spiritualized record in fifteen years. He’s unashamed to be cribbing directly from the Ladies & Gentlemen playbook, and thusly hitting every hipster sweet spot imaginable. “Headin for the Top Now” features both free-jazz saxophone bleating and a Neu! Motorik pulse, not to mention juke joint piano and the voice of Jason Pierce’s daughter inverting the “Mary Mary Quite Contrary” rhyme at the end into something more sinister. (And can you imagine what it must be like to be Jason Pierce’s daughter? Kid must know her way around a defibrillator.) Dr. John even gets a co-writing credit, just like he did for “Cop Shoot Cop,” on the appropriately swampy groove of “I Am What I Am,” home to both the record’s best bass line and catchiest call-and-response.

Pierce isn’t exactly breaking any new ground; the healing powers of Jesus are equated with those of rock ‘n’ roll, and there are at least two songs with lyrics that could double as suicide notes. But Sweet Heart stands alone in the Spiritualized oeuvre simply upon the sheer glut of uplift at its core, and for once it doesn’t appear to be the result of “good dope, good fun” (from Pure Phase [1995] classic “Lay Back in the Sun”) either. Pierce just sounds elated, and even a little surprised, to still be alive at age 47, let alone having the capability to craft space-rock gospel epics like this one. I mean, someone has to do it; when weighed against the recent efforts of other so-called indie visionaries, Sweet Heart comes off as a sort of public service—Coyne too unpredictable and too beholden to kitsch, Sufjan too disinterested.

And it all comes to a fittingly epic close with “So Long You Pretty Thing,” which begins as a hushed father/daughter duet, segues into the piano- and banjo(!)-laden throes of “help me lord, help me Jesus,” and eventually fades out after a soaring refrain equally indebted to the South and Bowie. Its seven minutes equally encapsulates both everything appealing about Jason Pierce and what detractors flock to in droves (over-reliance on the lord and savior mostly), and has all the trappings of a future classic to be played as the last song at Brooklyn funerals. In the event that Jason Pierce never releases another Spiritualized album, it would serve as a worthy capper to an amazing career, not to mention what’s easily one of the strongest efforts of 2012 thus far.