Spiritualized’s follow-up to its 1997 breakthrough album, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, took so long to come out that the British press started circulating rumors that it would be titled Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There. Mastermind Jason “Spaceman” Pierce did, in fact, sit at the mixing desk for more than a year after recording sessions at both Abbey Road and Air Studios (where he enlisted the help of more than 100 musicians, including gospel and choral singers). The result was Let It Come Down, a record that is, in many ways, remarkable.
Spiritualized is one of those bands that either you get or you don’t. Some say they are the emperor’s new clothes; often overrated and boring. Others — those who do get the band — then, as NME said of Let it Come Down, prepare to be blown away.
For Pierce, the new album was an exercise in conquering something he’d never attempted before, to see if the music could stand on its own without the space bleeps and effects that gave Ladies And Gentlemen … its otherworldly vibe. In short, he wanted to remove all the stuff that made Spiritualized Spiritualized.
“I really wanted to make a record that was a session recording,” he says.
Inspired by a Gil Evans or a Ray Charles recording, Pierce explains that he didn’t just want to nick their sound. What he wanted was “to have people in a room, to use Jim Dickinson’s line, ‘pushing air around.’”
To get there Pierce had to sing each song into a Dictaphone and then transpose that on piano by hitting each note until he got the one he was looking for. Pierce doesn’t play the piano or read music, “but I think that’s actually an advantage,” he says. “I wanted to make an album where I started with the arrangements and that would dictate the chords and dictate the way the songs went. It was quite a free way of working because my limitation was the notes I could sing or the notes I could put to the tape machine.”
Stripped of all the usual Spiritualized effects, Let It Come Down sounds a lot more grounded than the band’s previous albums.
“It’s not about using a vocabulary of effects to make a record. It’s about trying to make a record in the way I saw jazz music and classical music — the way they forged ahead and made the sounds even more interesting based within the harmonics they used or the notes they were after. Not the way they affect the sounds,” Pierce explains. He pauses, then he adds, “Most music is all about affecting the sounds, so whether you’re making hip hop or drum and bass or psychedelic music or rock ’n’ roll there’s a whole vocabulary of effects you can use to make something that sounds like those kinds of music. Even if you’ve got nothing to say and no substance to what you’re doing, you can still use the effects.”
Having nothing to say or lacking substance are things Pierce and Spiritualized have never been accused of. On the contrary, music scribes have spent loads of energy trying to figure out exactly what Pierce is saying in his music. The problem, as Pierce sees it, is that people are missing the humor in the songs by trying to make the pieces fit his life story. Ladies And Gentlemen … is a case in point.
“That album was about this traumatic breakup according to how people wanted to portray it and I said at the time, right from the off, that it’s not. I think because of that a lot of the humor within that record is missed. And a lot of the poetry is missed too. With ‘I Think I’m In Love’ people thought that was a song born of bitterness and misfortune. And it’s so not. There’s a whole series of one-liners.”
With Let It Come Down, Pierce finds himself trying to set the record straight once again. On the album he constructs stories of heartache, sin and salvation, healing and deterioration, a god that’s no help at all, and a this-is-me, take-it-or-leave-it attitude. With track titles like “The Twelve Steps” and “The Straight and the Narrow” the rockcrits rushed to sketch the tale of a man who’s settling down. What they overlooked was the rehab-clinic sarcasm (“I don’t think I’m gonna find Jesus Christ/So I’d rather spend my cash on vice”) and the raw honesty (“I don’t fall off the wagon you know/I take a dive and go as deep as I can go”) of the songs. For his part, Pierce is amused that an album that features the line “Out of sight is always out of mind/I think out of mind is out of sight” should be taken as a testimonial about cleaning up.
“All I’m saying is that there aren’t specific stories behind these songs. I don’t write music in that way and I don’t write songs that way. But then, that rarely ever runs, ’cause the stories sound better.”
This from a guy who’s never been to rehab and who hasn’t written an album about getting straight.
Lyrics are central to Pierce, especially since he thinks they’re the first point of contact in the music for a lot of people. “But they’re not a diary service, they’re not laying everything absolutely open like the song is about a specific,” he explains. “Most music is written as metaphors that become universal. If they really were about specifics you would listen to the music and picture this specific story. Something like the country song ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ is very definitely a story, and it works. Most music isn’t about that. When you listen to Ray Charles singing ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ you don’t picture Ray Charles unable to stop loving a mystery third person. You relate it to your life. Or if you hear Patsy Cline singing ‘Walking After Midnight’ you don’t kind of go, ‘Hey, it’s 10 to 12, I better get my shoes so I can really get with this.’ You pull out what’s relevant to you.”
The goal in Spiritualized has always been to find the right words to convey a universal feeling and to make people feel things on a more soulful level; the music has to mean something to the people who hear it.
“All the music that I’m drawn to does that. It’s more than just aural … you feel it bodily,” say Pierce, his voice rising slightly. “You feel it like the person singing the music, like they’ve gotten inside of the song and they genuinely understand it and they empower that. I think that too much music isn’t about that.”
We should all be grateful the music of Spiritualized still is.
Spiritualized performs at St. Andrew’s Hall, 431 E. Congress, Detroit, Saturday, April 27. Doors at 9 p.m. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club opens. Tickets are $16; call 313-961-MELT for more information.E-mail Celeste Moure at firstname.lastname@example.org