I'VE BEEN LISTENING to Spiritualized's Sweet Heart Sweet Light pretty much nonstop over the past week. It's an album that actually plays like an album—listening to a song by itself or deviating from the sequence completely upends its framework. That's how good it is.
That attention to detail also explains why Jason Pierce (or J. Spaceman to fellow space cadets) would probably still be working on the album if he could. Pierce's obsessive-compulsive tendencies are the reason he's admitted to disliking making records. The process wasn't made any easier by the fact that he discovered he had long-term liver disease, which—coupled with an experimental drug treatment—made life, let alone work, difficult.
I originally considered calling this "J. Spaceman Has a Cold," after the famous Esquire piece on Frank Sinatra written by Gay Talese, who was unable to nail down an interview with Old Blue Eyes. I, too, was unable to snag an interview with my subject. But I also didn't have three months to follow around Pierce and his entourage to scrape together observations and anecdotes. There were a few other things working against me: I had only three days to work on it; as I write this Pierce is probably somewhere in Arizona; and I'm no Gay Talese.
Plus, that title could be interpreted as insensitive, considering Pierce became seriously ill from pneumonia in 2005. His 40s have been difficult health-wise, but you wouldn't know it from his productivity (a solo album, soundtrack work, collaborations, live performances), or by listening to Sweet Heart Sweet Light. It contains arguably some of the happiest (sounding, at least) music of his career. And the record contains what could be the poppiest song Pierce has ever written. "Hey Jane" has everything a great rock song should: a woman's name in the title, an immediate hook, simply strummed gee-tars, and a noisy breakdown that keeps it from becoming too ear-friendly.
The rest of Sweet Heart Sweet Light methodically unfolds from that giddy nine minutes, covering an array of emotions and paying homage to a range of music that could have been born under drizzly skies in England and glowing church ceilings in the Deep South. Its beauty only occasionally hides Pierce's familiar themes of death, drugs, and God, all of which receive more heft through soaring choruses, most notably on "I Am What I Am."
Pierce has cited Iggy Pop's Kill City and Captain Beefheart's Clear Spot as touchstones for what he wanted to accomplish with Sweet Heart Sweet Light—two albums, he says, that are products of those artists' personal growth, but still cling to their earlier primal instincts. Listening to Kill City again, I see what he means—it's still Iggy Pop, but it's Iggy Pop utilizing all of his senses, not just raw power. Pierce's new collection of songs still bears a slightly less drug-blurred resemblance to his formidable Spacemen 3 years, or early Spiritualized albums like Let It Come Down and Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, but it also shows Pierce's willingness to embrace pop, or elements that could be deemed "normal."
It might be some time before Pierce releases new material. But who knows? After escaping death—twice—he might have even more reason to make new music. As Sweet Heart Sweet Light shows us—growing old isn't such a bad thing.