When creating Spiritualized‘s seventh album, Jason Pierce had the ungodly task of not only resurrecting the band’s career, but his own life as well. Much has been made of Pierce’s close collision with death (a bout of pneumonia nearly killed him) but little has been mentioned that the band seemed destined for the grave even before his trip to the hospital. From my perspective, the last album (Amazing Grace) seemed like Pierce had exhausted all of his great ideas with the ginormously-orchestrated masterpiece Let It Come Down. He called Amazing Grace the band’s attempt to return to sparsely populated areas, but Pierce failed to back up that open range with memorable material. The result felt like an attempt to remind listeners of the direct lineage between the bare bones output of bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys and Pierce’s old band, Spacemen 3.
Trouble is, most of us knew that already, and what made Spiritualized so great was the idea that the guy who started his career by playing one chord repeatedly for forty-five minutes was now, literally, composing hugely ornate arrangements and taking an accidental genius and turning into an artist with a clear aptitude for greatness.
If Amazing Grace was the first chink in that catalog, then we must consider what a run Pierce and company had up to that point. We must also consider the possibility that he has the ability to turn the ship around and provide fans with additional examples of greatness.
Songs In A & E is that example.
The fact that the album is not only ranks alongside the band’s other high (ha!) points is only made more impressive with those aforementioned tales of vulnerability. Thankfully, Pierce is the kind of person who’s not afraid of using such life events and delivering an album based entirely from that challenging source material. He’s done it before…addiction, depression, and spirituality have been topic that Pierce has covered throughout his career…so moving towards an album that tackles the heady topic of mortality should not be that surprising.
What is surprising is how Pierce puts his voice at center stage throughout A & E. Previously, the weariness and frailty of his vocals were an accompaniment, the vast arrangements and instrumentation were often used to reflect the emotions of his words. It allowed him to reprise the role repeatedly, using the changes in the music to reflect the album’s resonance. But for A & E, Pierce must have determined that the topic at hand was too important to allow the music to set the theme. The topic of death has put Pierce in the unenviable position of having to tell it to us unadorned and free of clutter.
This is not to suggest that the album doesn’t have its share of horns, orchestras, and gospel choirs. They’re present, but they’re farther back in the mix, requiring Pierce to shoulder the burden of telling his story without those orchestral security blankets.
What this means is that a song like “Death Take Your Fiddle,” which begins with the slow rhythm of a medical respirator, reaches an emotional apex when Pierce utters the line “I think I’ll drink myself into a coma / And I’ll take any pill that I can find” in front everything else. It’s one thing to mutter a line like that from behind a room of musicians, but to make it in front of them takes a certain amount of bravery.
Songs In A & E is unmistakably a Spiritualized album, the band’s signature sound is still in place and the songs are arranged in such a fashion that there’s a sense of real variety and economy. It’s over before you know it, and its impression is great enough that you’re wanting to return to it almost immediately after the last song, a gentle acoustic lullaby entitled “Goodnight Goodnight,” is finished.
It all may point to the same conclusion that Pierce himself reached while making this album: Songs In A & E may have been inspired by death itself, but to completely grasp the themes that it presents, one may have to appreciate how fragile life really is. Spiritualized’s own resurrection presents a message for us to either enjoy what we have in front of us or consider the things we need to do to facilitate our own revivification.