Jason Pierce Plagued by Medical and Lyrical Troubles

Spiritualized -- Sweet Heart Sweet Light -- Fat Possum -- 2 STARS

Courtesy Fat Possum

Spiritualized frontman Jason Pierce provides perhaps the finest example of the musical benefits of using drugs. Ever since his first band, Spacemen 3, declared itself to be “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to,” Pierce has searched for a sound that embodies chemically-abetted transcendence. Despite its adverse health effects—Pierce was recently diagnosed with long-term liver disease—this quest has conceptually and musically unified all of Spiritualized’s diverse work, which draws on genres from gospel to classic rock. As the band’s latest album makes clear, however, bland baroque pop doesn’t fit within this mission. Though Pierce remains capable of a rousing guitar rave up despite his recent illness, “Sweet Heart Sweet Light” is dominated by sluggish ballads that make the album a torpid and disjointed affair.

Some of the tracks on “Sweet Heart Sweet Light” are impeccable. Songs like the eight-minute “So Long You Pretty Thing,” which ends the album with a suitably mind-melting outro, exemplify what Spiritualized does best: entrancing repetition, heartfelt vocals, and orchestral flourishes. Such qualities are also evident in the lengthy “Heading for the Top” and the second half of the nine-minute single “Hey Jane.” Together, these two and a half songs constitute a solid 20 minutes of majestic psychedelic rock; unfortunately, those 20 minutes only make up a third of the record.

The rest of the album is given over to unremarkable, indistinguishable ballads. Until now, Pierce always managed to couple his balladeer tendencies with superb songwriting; 2008’s “Soul on Fire” was a stellar example of his ability to write a great song even without using multiple distortion pedals or a 50-piece orchestra. The languid tracks on “Sweet Heart Sweet Light,” by contrast, feature bland instrumentation that invigorates neither the boring melodies nor stunning dearth of hooks.

What ultimately sinks these ballads, however, is their inability to provide any musical justification for the record’s truly egregious lyrics, which treat subjects such as death and mortality in a shallow and insipid manner. Without a compelling musical backdrop, Jason Pierce’s haggard and fading voice is forced to stand on its own. He lacks the necessary gravitas to successfully deliver lyrics as inane as “Sometimes I wish that I was dead,” or “Sometimes your world’s so full of pain,” both of which are from the horrid “Little Girl.” Though the thematic darkness stems from Pierce’s life-threatening health struggles, the lyrics are so poorly written and performed that they evoke pity rather than sympathy.

The more extravagant tracks do a much better job of handling this lyrical problem. “Heading for the Top,” for instance, ends with a fading chant of “Don’t let the damage show,” which would sound melodramatic if it weren’t backed up by a darkly fascinating wall of sound. Unfortunately, Pierce makes no effort to bring the two types of songs on “Sweet Heart Sweet Light” together, which creates an uneasy dichotomy. This duality is exemplified by the first single “Hey Jane,” which begins quietly and abruptly shifts into a chugging guitar excursion into cosmic infinity. Instead of smoothly integrating the two parts, Pierce fades out the first section and includes a few seconds of silence before starting the second.

Such misguided choices make it seem like Pierce isn’t quite sure what he wants out of this record, which is perhaps the most troubling thing one can say about a Spiritualized album. Though Pierce has worked with a multitude of different genres, he has always carried out his musical experiments with confidence. In contrast, “Sweet Heart Sweet Light” is defined by shaky certainty. Perhaps this is still music to take drugs too, but only because it’s so weak otherwise.

—Staff writer Petey Menz can be reached at menz@college.harvard.edu.

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