(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Recording review - Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light (2012)

Confused ambivalence, but Spiritualized still brings the noise

Spiritualized took their time getting Sweet Heart Sweet Light out the door. Of course, two years of recording and almost a year of chemotherapy hazed mixing could slow down anyone's momentum. Jason Pierce (AKA J. Spaceman) is now in better health, but the illness and his treatment had an impact on the new album.

Sweet Heart Sweet Light is a bit confused, unsure of whether it wants to be ironic or sincere, harsh or treacly. It hasn't decided whether their musical touchstones should be esteemed or dismissed. This ambivalence is not new for Spiritualized, but this album brings it front and center. Despite this, there are still some constants: a low-fi, compressed production that recalls the late night FM radio of my youth, Pierce's eager embrace of glorious noise, and the belief that regular repetition can drive a message home.

Skipping the pastoral welcome of Intro and it's promise of comfort, the album gets underway with Hey Jane (graphic official video here). The bouncy beat and Pierce's naive vocals capture a young David Bowie, reworking Jean Genie. Halfway through the track, the song hits a meltdown ending. The chaos fades but the song resurrects into a sunshine psychedelia, packed with hypnotic repetition and a relentless bass beat. The tempo creeps higher and Pierce's vocals come in, alluding to the earlier lyrics. But now there's a threat, "Hey Jane, when you gonna die?" This heavy bait and switch makes it harder to trust a surface read on the other tracks.

So, later, when Freedom's sweet harmonies and country folk arrangement offers a respite from the thick, heavy sound of Headin' For the Top, there's a sense that the Neil Young mask could slip at any time.

By the same token, when Spiritualized gets saccharine sweet on Too Late or mines a gospel vein on Life is a Problem, it feels like another chance to dash everyone's expectations and undercut the band's reputation for noise.

Sweet Heart Sweet Light does deliver plenty of the discordance that Spiritualized is known for. I Am What I Am is a perfect example. The warning feedback whine heralds chunky strum and a dark, heavy bassline. The song's bluster has a threatening tone, like Bad to the Bone for the experimental set, but the lyrics are cloaked in metaphor
I am the heart that calls you home
I'm the grave that marks your stone
Misunderstood, d'ya understand?
I'm the sea holds back the land
I'm the mishap and coincidence that came out as you planned
I am what I am
The sassy backup vocals on the chorus set up a call and response. But the noise rises against Pierce's calm delivery. Piano stabs, steel wool scour, and a distorted buzz like a rattlesnake -- these sounds fall into place like a gathering horde behind their leader. A saxophone channels Ornette Coleman short circuit squeals. It's a delicious tension as Pierce remains unfazed, untouched by the chaos.

This contrast is what I love most about Spiritualized. For a moment, it banishes the schmaltzy strings and other retro pop trappings to capture the essence of the band's roots.

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