Review of Spiritulized's album Songs in A&E.
The first thing I should point out that this is the most sumptuously packaged CD I have ever been sent to review. Now, I know that's never the main thing one should look for in an album, but let me explain: it's the size of a paperback book (although containing significantly fewer pages), printed on really heavy (and no doubt expensive) paper, and contains a potted storyline of how the album came about (near-death experience and an extended stay in intensive care, anyone?), tour dates, contact details and enough exquisite illustrations of cannulae to bring back painful memories for anyone who's ever had one inserted. The CD is mounted on the inside back cover on a small rubber pad that looks convincingly pharmaceutical. I've no idea whether the product available in the shops is similarly lovely, but collectors everwhere would weep over this. It is gorgeous. You can't have it though - I'm keeping it.
And happily, some of the music on the CD is similarly gorgeous. For starters, you'd be daft to turn your nose up at an opening track that features a mellotron so prominently. It's a criminally under-used instrument these days, which I can understand from a logistical point of view. I mean, nobody likes lugging around a temperamental three-ton keyboard that looks like the result of sending MFI's top designers on a crash course in Soviet brutalist architecture. But, by God, they sound great. ("Harmony 1", the track that features said artefact, is one of a series of tracks entitled "Harmony", taken from the soundtrack from a film called "Mr Lonely", directed by Harmony Korine. These tracks provide little breathers that crop up throughout the album to great effect.)
The first track proper is "Sweet Talk", on which Jason Pierce's voice sounds more careworn and lived-in than previously, but it's entirely in keeping the now familiar lazy, hazy Spiritualized sound. One thing they've always done well is the musical equivalent of morphine, and this is no exception. Just to listen to this is to be wrapped in fuzzy, warm, comforting cotton wool, and set adrift on a sea of heavily opiated clouds. By stark contrast, the worried breathing noises and scratchy guitar at the start of "Death Take Your Fiddle" take us into entirely different territory, in uncomfortably close proximity to the Reaper himself. Pierce's voice sounds tired, worn-out, hollow - on the edge and looking over. "I Got A Fire" reminds these ears of the Stones's "Gimme Shelter" and heralds a recovery of sorts, but the kind of recovery that sometimes precedes a relapse. Pierce's voice sounds defiant but thin, reedy, and full of doubt: "ain't no religion here".
"Soul on Fire" starts with a country-esqe, gospel-ish feel that soon blossoms into the kind of blissed-out chorus that seasoned Pierce-watchers will recognise instantly. There's little hints of the full Spiritualized electric barrage waiting in the wings, but they're just hints. The strings and brass are nothing short of lush - it's impossible for this to be too loud - and later we get a simple, honest guitar line that's full of optimism and reassurance. Lovely. "Sitting On Fire" is an acoustic-powered campfire song, a consolidation of things that are known and trusted. The mournful strings are bang on. "Yeah Yeah" comes as a bit of a wake-up call: are these the fabled green shoots of recovery? Very much electric-powered, but a little restrained (let's not run before we can walk, eh? You've not been well) with a spew of defiant lyrics. "You Lie You Cheat" contains some vicious smears of angry guitars that are the nearest we get to the full-on electric monstering of yore - by gum, they sound good, "Baby I'm Just A Fool" fairly bounces (OK, relatively speaking) with pop promise. It's debatable whether that promise ever come to fruition, but this is as close as Spiritulized ever get to happy-go-lucky, with "do-do-de-do" vocals and sweet strings and perky bass and a lightness of touch that's really rather endearing. Later on the track really hots up with bells and brass - Spiritualized you can dance to! No, really! Joy unconfin'd!
"Don't Hold Me Close" slows the pace again, with Pierce's voice again sounding fragile against a choir and shimmery backing. "Maybe time will just make a sweetheart of you", he intones before an adorable clarinet plays an almost incidental nursery-rhyme melody. "The Waves Crash In" see-saws with cymbals and strings; an acoustic bass and some more clarinet conjure up an old man sitting watching the endless cycle of waves washing on a beach. They used to call this "convalescing". It's almost an arrangement Robert Wyatt might consider using, and it's similar in some respects to some of Wyatt's almost pastoral whimsy. "Borrowed Your Gun" has some lovely vocal harmonies and a deft arrangement providing a textured background to some grim, apologetic lyrics that surely shouldn't be taken at face value - "Daddy, I'm sorry I borrowed your gun/I shot up your mother, your beautiful mother". And the brass section puts in a great turn, too.
The closing track, "Goodnight Goodnight", is an addled lullaby, just Pierce and an acoustic guitar to begin with, and then a restrained cello joined by a violin (or is it a viola?). Another example of one of the many fine arrangements on this record, even if it isn't much of a song. The repetition of the words "funeral home" at the end put a very different spin on things. It's putting a long, trying episode to bed when the result could easily have been putting the patient in the ground.
Serious illness pervades this album, as do themes of recovery, relapse, regret, memory and - crucially - hope. Overall, we're left with the impression that things are going to be OK. This record's something of a journey. A self-examination maybe, with a clean(ish) bill of health at the end. I'd be lying if I said it marked a departure - but maybe that's not the point. Maybe the point is that the album documents an experience that was dark, difficult, and dangerous, but one that the narrator survived - maybe not intact, but certainly changed. Perhaps stronger, perhaps in some ways with the same weaknesses that were always there.
It is, however, refreshingly personal and perhaps understandably confessional. It's an album born of misfortune and of plans that had to be changed. It's an album that, had things taken another course, might never have been made at all.
Good to have you back, Mr Spaceman.