First, a quick pointer to Damien’s review of Neil Young in Edinburgh last night, which sounds like it was a pretty incredible night. All being well, I’m going to the first London show, so I’ll try and file something on Thursday morning.
Second: this Spiritualized album. As I somewhat sanctimoniously mention here every week or so, I don’t really like slagging things off on Wild Mercury Sound – I have far too many good records to write about to waste time on negativity, and so on. But so many of you have been badgering me for some kind of response to “Songs In A&E”, I figured I should post something.
For a start, I should mention that Spiritualized have been one of my favourite bands over the past 15-odd years. I gave “Lazer Guided Melodies” 9.99 recurring out of 10 in NME, and wrote my first NME cover story on the band circa “Medication”. Through the ‘90s, I probably wrote more purple prose on them than on any other band.
I suspect that “Songs In A&E” is going to attract a lot more purple prose – if this isn’t proclaimed as one of the albums of the year in most papers and magazines, I’ll be amazed; plenty of other people at Uncut love it. But it’s not working for me, in general. As we might have guessed from those Acoustic Mainline shows, a lot of stuff here follows that slow-motion gospel and strings pattern, privileging Jason Pierce’s idea of soulfulness.
I think a lot of people will be drawn to this, to the way Pierce documents fairly brutally the health issues which have affected him in the past few years: “Think I’ll drink myself into a coma,” is his way of starting the best track here, “Death Take Your Fiddle”. But as I’ve mentioned before, I find myself less and less interested in notions of authenticity; I don’t much care whether a singer is reflecting their genuine pain, or totally faking it, just whether it engages me.
His language, his imagery are so familiar now that they’ve lost some of their potency for me: three songs here are called “Soul On Fire”, “I Gotta Fire” and “Sitting On Fire”, which strikes me as repetitive rather than thematically skilful. Plus, Pierce’s cracked voice is foregrounded and exposed on a lot of these songs, as if to point up the honesty of the endeavour.
This means that we don’t often get the depth and texture of the best Spiritualized music. There are some interesting nuances to a few of the arrangements here, but these are generally orthodox songs, and I personally miss the drones, the trances, the determinedly linear, meticulous brand of psychedelia.
There’s a glimpse of the richness he can still summon up on “Baby I’m Just A Fool”, which builds and builds up more and more detail; a freestyling horn section turn up near the climax, reminiscent of the peaks of “Ladies And Gentlemen. . .” Or towards the end of “The Waves Crash In”, one of his see-sawing reveries that could incorporate a snatch of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” without too much trouble.
Perhaps I’ve changed my tastes a little, and Spiritualized haven’t as much. Perhaps if I hadn’t heard everything else Pierce has ever recorded, I’d be amazed by his craft, his elaborate way of working through a bunch of ancient gospel and blues tropes and investing them with new, intensely personal, meaning.
The sad thing is, though, I’m kind of bored by this album right now. The most provocative track on “Songs In A&E” is “Death Take Your Fiddle”, where Pierce’s near-death experience informs the music as well as the lyrics: the rattle and wheeze of a respirator seems to provide an essential rhythm behind the song. It’s an eerie and clever trick, and one which is weirdly much more affecting than the explicit details – the “morphine, codeine, whisky” – laid out in the lyrics.
Does it make me want to play the record again and again, though? Not really. But you’re going to tell me I’m wrong, right?