At their mid-'90s peak, Spiritualized could make atheists see and hear god—or whatever passes for a deity at the peak of an acid trip. During those years, these British space rockers—led by former Spacemen 3 guitarist/vocalist Jason Pierce—induced the most delirious mentasm I've ever experienced in more than three decades of gig-going. It was the one-two punch of all one-two punches.
At several Spiritualized shows in that decade, the lysergic revelation would start with "Shine a Light," a sacred ballad off their debut album, Lazer Guided Melodies. It's a slow-building devotional song marked by Pierce's vulnerable, repentant voice and eloquent slide-guitar sighs and keyboard moans that form a soul halo. "Shine a Light" gradually ascends and accelerates to a cacophonous climax that whirls into "Electric Mainline," an instrumental jam from Spiritualized's second (and best) album, Pure Phase. "Electric Mainline" takes essences from minimalist composers Terry Riley and Steve Reich and puts them in a cyclotron coated in amphetamine-laced LSD. Farfisa organ oscillations and tremolos, concentric, diamond-spangled guitar ripples, hearty bass thrum, and urgent, motorik drums conjugate with strobing, hypno-wheel projections until you feel like a big bang is happening in your synapses... over and over. The piece increasingly speeds up until you think the club is going to—OH MY GOD YES! NEVER LET THIS END! The rest of my life largely has been a fruitless quest to recapture this sense of overwhelming ear/eye ravishment.
The mastermind of these awesome experiences, Pierce has had two flirtations with mortality in the last eight years: the first from double pneumonia in 2005, then another while fighting chronic liver disease, for which he underwent an experimental treatment while mixing 2012's Sweet Heart Sweet Light. Despite these setbacks, Sweet Heart sounds like a sort of salvation. It's Spiritualized's most inspirational record since their 1997 commercial breakthrough and critics' favorite Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.
Given all of the health issues he's had, one wonders if Pierce thought that Sweet Heart might be his last album. "I know it sounds stupid," Pierce says over the phone from New York, "but I feel like every record I make is my last record. It's a race against time to get it all down. I'm not morbid; I just know it takes me a long time to make records, because I want to get 'em right. When I start a record, I allow for a year and a half."
Sweet Heart sounds like a grand statement from a man busting out of a creative rut. The album's centerpiece is the nearly nine-minute "Hey Jane," an intense, ebbing and flowing rocker in the vein of Velvet Underground's "Heroin," but with guitar freak-outs more reminiscent of Sonny Sharrock's free skronk. "Get What You Deserve" is vengeful orchestral rock that evokes the Beatles' mellifluous "Within You Without You." The glowering Dr. John collaboration "I Am What I Am" elevates with gospelish call-and-response female backing vocals and a bass line nicked from Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)."
"Life Is a Problem" is the obligatory weepy, Jesusy ballad seeking redemption. Pierce sings, "My willpower was never too strong/Jesus please drive me away from my sins/Won't get to heaven unless god's at the wheel/Kill all my demons and that would be fine/But I would be reloading all of the time." The album closes with "So Long You Pretty Thing," featuring Pierce's dulcet-voiced tween daughter Poppy on vocals. It's another trademark "help me lord" ode, until it explodes into an arm-waving clap-along at 4:20 (uh-huh), totally sweeping you up into a Hollywoodish feel-good exit/ascension.
Sweet Heart sounds like one of Spiritualized's more optimistic albums, although there are definitely some dark moments on it. "The difference for me making that record is I had to do treatment for hepatitis C," Pierce says. "I hadn't met anybody who'd done it, so it was pretty difficult to do. With that in mind, I wanted to tie up a lot of loose ends. The Dr. John track dates back to two or three years after Ladies and Gentlemen. 'Too Late' was shelved for a while. I knew the chorus had a great line, but it never seemed to fit with anything.
"So I tried to make an album that was upbeat. I said at the time, it was like a pop album—these really concise pop songs, because I knew I was going to be mixing it when I wasn't really up to speed. To be honest, I don't even feel that connected to it, because of that. It seems like I made it while I was somewhere else. But people in America really seem to go for this one. Yet it's taken till now, playing the songs live, for me to make any connection with it."
Could Pierce's medical crises be viewed as sources of creative inspiration? "I don't know," he muses. "What you really want to do is come back with redemption, like you've seen the light or something. But I came back the same person I was before I [became ill]—disappointingly the same."
Finally, the question all you die-hard Spacemen 3 fans perpetually want to ask: What if someone presented Pierce and Sonic Boom with £1 million each to re-form Spacemen 3—one of the most beloved space-rock groups ever—for a reunion tour? Pierce laughs heartily. "There were offers on the table at one stage, but at about a tenth of that figure," Pierce says. "I think it's still a strange idea to go back and re-form. The short answer is, I haven't taken it yet. Everybody's got their price, though, don't they? I wouldn't do it because it's a gigantic step into the past. It's like someone approaching Jackson Pollock and saying, 'Here's some cash; I want something like your 1930s work.' It would be an odd thing for an artist, but music seems to embrace it—or the commerce of music has embraced that idea."
How about £2 million?