June 1997 – album reviews – Spiritualized’s ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space’ (“a damaged hallelujah”)

22 Jun

Spiritualized: 'Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space'

Spiritualized: ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’

I never did like Spacemen 3. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Posh boys who’d taken too many drugs, as far as I’m concerned. Couldn’t stop writing bleeding songs about heroin, and constantly invoking Jesus in describing the drug‑induced high. Cheers, lads. Piss off.

And they did, thankfully. Sonic Boom (what sort of a name is that? ‑ “Hello, Mr Boom! How is Mrs Boom, and the little Boomers?”) continued mumbling away over guitar drones. But Spiritualized (headed by the other main Spaceman, Jason Pierce) have varied their output a little more, and this third album does, at times, dispense with that (frankly irritating) all‑pervasive one‑note drone. And the lyrical content is as much to do with the break‑up of Pierce’s relationship with Kate Radley, the band’s keyboardist (can you imagine the sessions for this album?), as it does with his perennial fascination with the ingestion of various illegal chemicals.

The change has produced songs one can finally empathise with, rather than just get stoned to. “All I want in life’s a little bit of love / to take the pain away. / Getting strong today, / I try a step each day…” That’s the insecure but repeated mantra of the title track, as the hushed airless opening explodes into a space‑age orchestra of woozy guitars, ethereal strings and a radio communications beep.

As Pierce’s voice harmonises with the multi‑tracked choir of his other vocal lines, it sounds like a contradiction of emotions ‑ spiritual exhaustion, but also strangely life‑affirming. And, in spite of the galactic scale of the arrangement (this is music for the psychological planetariums of the soul), this song sounds utterly naked. Jason is going out without his pressure suit. We can see the pulse at his throat, and the scared black glint of his pupils as he braves the exposure.

Much of this could be a conscious attempt on his part to strip himself of much of the obscuring Krautrock dirty‑cotton‑wool sound he and bands like Stereolab hide behind. On I Think I’m In Love, against a buzzing engaging organ drone and a syncopated sequence of piano, harmonica and dubby bass pulled together by a pulsating rhythm into a sort of beautiful intoxicating systems music, Pierce’s vocals play call‑and‑response in misery: “I think I’d like to tell someone / (probably not listening)… / I think I’m alive / (probably just breathing)…” Christ, but life’s hard around here. Still, compared to the zonked aloofness of previous output, it’s touching to see him stumbling blinking into the light.

Almost everywhere else, it’s reassuring to see that ‑ in musical terms, at least ‑ Jason Pierce still doesn’t know the meaning of the word “subtle”. On the pounding chorus of Come Together, he is joined by a blasting horn section, massed handclaps, the London Community Gospel Choir, Spiritualized’s own impressive full‑blown sonic armoury… and there may well be a string section in there somewhere. It’s the sort of track that puts other mid‑ paced overblown epics by certain bands to shame ‑ d’you know what I mean?

Stay With Me is a beautifully simple love song and, for once, there are no druggily wasted drones or held notes. At the start of the track, Jason’s voice is as naked as it’s ever been, over subtly plucked electric guitars and church organ. Then a Spector‑ish wall of sound descends ‑ every instrument playing a poignantly descending scale in unison to build a huge edifice of gorgeous noise, with pounding drums way back in the mix.

Jason hasn’t entirely parted company with his old ways. “Sometimes I have my breakfast right off a mirror / And sometimes I have it right out of a bottle…” You’re ahead of me here, aren’t you? That’s it, exactly what I was thinking ‑ what a very strange way to have your Rice Krispies. To be more serious, though: Pierce uses the lyrics of Home Of The Brave to say how he doesn’t miss her when he’s totally wasted. The “brave” of the title comes in confronting this awful reality honestly, and he does so to a paranoid musical backing of Day In The Life proportions: a crescendo of Spiritualized playing en masse, hitting, blowing, pressing every instrument in sight.

Without the cushioning and comfort of orchestras of sound around him on Broken Heart, Pierce’s naked voice once again faces reality. “And I’ve wasted all the time / I gotta drink you off my mind / I’ve been told that this will heal, given time / Lord, I have a broken heart.” The backing of a muted string section and the duetting of French horn and violin is Nyman‑esque in its feel and simplicity (violinists Alexander Balanescu and Clare Connors are regular Nyman Band stalwarts), hitting aching minor chords. Transfixing from start to finish, as is “Cool Waves”, a mildly‑stoned gospel lullaby. The bizarre combination of strings and harmonica (hey! sounds like Larry Adler! ‑ ED.) accompany the spartan verse, but the chorus floats on a luxuriant cloud of kettle drums and gospel choir ‑ “Cool waves wash over me / Lay your sweet hand on me / ‘Cos I love you.” A bird‑like solo flute joins the voices, horns and strings, lifting one’s eyes further to the heavens.

This must be reading like a half‑reluctant eulogy to a record I’m being slowly cajoled into adoring. And that’s probably the case: about two‑thirds of this album is a damaged hallelujah pushing hard at the door marked “heaven’s revelatory greatness”. Sadly ‑ as always with Spiritualized ‑ there are a couple of derivative up‑tempo numbers that send them slithering back down the ladder into junkie‑plodder land.

Electricity is another of their attempts at being the ‘White Light/White Heat’‑era Velvet Underground ‑ raucous guitars, garage studio dynamics and bad analogies to drugs and getting off one’s face. And Cop Shoot Cop is a directionless fifteen‑minute epic: starting as a laid‑ back, piano‑led, metronomic blues piece, coupled to an occasional interlude of noisy overheated guitar, it unfortunately lacks any of the passion or involvement of the blues. It also features a four‑minute interlude of “free” guitar distortion and band improvisation ‑ so passé, darling.

With the fissile, powerful marvels elsewhere on the record, it’s infuriating to find that Pierce still has a tendency to slouch down and take a long drawn‑out, indifferent crap into his own nest. It’s like someone creeping into Westminster Abbey to join in the transcendent singing for a while, then deciding he’s bored, spray‑painting a giant spliff‑puffing face onto the altar screen, and sniggering “huh huh, cool.” It’s this aspect of Spiritualized, their own concrete boots, that pulls ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’ back from the classic status it might otherwise warrant.

But let’s forgive these lapses, shall we? Through an obviously traumatic emotional event, Jason Pierce has found a more developed, challenging lyrical and musical voice for Spiritualized. Ladies and gentlemen; bar a few technical hitches, Spiritualized are indeed floating in space. Here’s the music for the intergalactic planet ride.

(review by Col Ainslie)

Spiritualized: ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’
Dedicated Records, DEDCD 034 (7 43214 81422 2)
CD‑only album
Released: 16th June 1997

Get it from:
Just about anywhere: it’s still on general release.

Spiritualized online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

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