on 7 April 2008
When I clocked that this album features no less than eighteen tracks, I sighed in anticipation of the tedious criticisms that this would inevitably reap: "Were this album a more succinct ten tracks or so it would have been a classic, but it appears unfocused and several tracks feel like unnecessary filler". Yeah yeah. I've not seen any reviews for this yet, but I'll wager that at least one reviewer will offer the above sentiments in their assessment. It's a tedious inevitability.
But...listening to this, I can sort of see where these (hypothetical) reviewers are coming from. Sort of. Almost. Whilst the album does not feel unbalanced or overlong (though containing 18 tracks it's only 51 minutes in total), some tracks are undoubtedly weaker. That's not to dismiss them as filler, however. These...inferior tracks can still create an impression. "Death Take Your Fiddle", for instance, is the most overtly disturbing song ever penned by Mr. Pierce, sampling, as it does, a respirator. It might just be me that finds the sounds of medicine so distressing, but I find that particular song to be a most uncomfortable listen.
The other "lesser tracks", "I Gotta Fire", and "Yeah Yeah" are simply too short. They're immediate and exciting like the best bits of Amazing Grace, but they fail to build upon their ideas and, as such, are wholly unfulfilling. They're not BAD songs, they're just not good enough...
Well, all of these "lesser tracks" appear during the first half of the album, which itself isn't short of merits. The opening duo of "Harmony 1" and "Sweet Talk" is gorgeous: Atmospheric, heartbreaking, huge...think "Broken Heart" or "Stop Your Crying". The single, too, "Soul on Fire", has a timeless quality about it. It's a lush gospel epic which could very well have been penned by Van Morrison, Mike Scott or even Dylan. "You Lie, You Cheat" is even better...it starts off with a catchy yet inoffensively strummed acoustic guitar, before the whole thing is suddenly rudely engulfed by the sort of squalling feedback which harks back to the loudest moments of "Ladies and Gentlemen...". It really could not have been written by any other band.
So, the first half of the album is indeed a bit...patchy. However, from "Harmony 3" onwards we have what will most probably turn out to be the most beautiful twenty five minutes of music released in all of 2008. "Baby, I'm Just a Fool" is the centre piece of this album, musically and literally. It exudes a woozy sense of regret throughout its extended running time, with a simple two-chord guitar rhythm perfectly complimented by the playful chimes of what sounds like a xylophone. As Spiritualized songs are wont to do, it kicks into a higher gear towards the end, allowing for more unusual instruments to experiment with their own melodies without losing the overall drive of the song. Absolutely stunning.
The six "Harmonies" scattered throughout the album serve variantly as interludes and bridges and ensure that rather than a collection of songs, this really is a cohesive, flowing ALBUM. Pierce may be dealing with some uncomfortable subjects, but the sounds he creates are, as ever, strikingly beautiful. After the comparatively stripped down Amazing Grace, this seems like a return to the symphonic experimentation of Let It All Come Down. Be that as it may, whilst Let It All Come Down seemed to strive for excess, here orchestrations and instrumentations are deployed in far subtler manners. It's hardly minimalist, but instruments are given space to breathe and, more than ever before, the spaces between sounds seem just as important as the actual sounds. This approach is perhaps best sampled on "The Waves Crash In", in which the ebbing and flowing vocals and music really do serve to create the impression of, well, crashing waves.
The closing "Goodnight, Goodnight" initially sounds like the sort of saccharine optimistic closer as deployed by The Grateful Dead on Live Dead...and it is lovely, until Pierce starts gently chanting "funeral home, funeral home" as the album fades out...the effect is unnerving, and suddenly it becomes clear that all that preceded, even if it may at times have sounded beautiful, was only so on the surface for, inherent in the lyrics rather than the delivery, is an undertone of misery, despair and menace as was foreshadowed so horribly in the use of hospital samples in "Death Take Your Fiddle". Such a realisation only serves to induce a desire to listen again as soon as the album has finished...which is quite a powerful reaction.
So...to conclude, whilst this album is definitely flawed, any reviewer who says anything along the lines of "could have been shorter" is just wrong. Yes, some tracks stand out quite obviously, but the shorter tracks succeed in transforming this album into a cohesive, conceptual whole. And what a concept! Such a collection of hazy, engaging, intense and fractured songs could only have been written by somebody who came so close to death.
Verily, this album could not have been written by anybody else. It's acid blues or chemical gospel performed by a truly singular talent. It may lack immediacy but it has a depth unrivaled by many other albums and it will be listened to and talked about for years to come. This is not merely another chapter in the narcotic adventures of Jason Pierce. In its own right, it is an excellent album, very powerful, and bears all the hallmarks of a classic.
And the "lesser tracks"? Well, they're making more sense with every subsequent listen. I want to listen to it again. Right now.
I'm going to guess that the title of "Songs in A&E" refers to Jason Pierce nearly dying of pneumonia during the album's recording.
It's a relatively appropriate title for Spiritualized's latest album, because the lyrics are all about illness -- not of the body, but the distrust and bleakness inside a soul. It's a relatively dark sound for the music -- a satiny mass of ethereal mellotron, brass, guitar and soaring strings, when Pierce isn't driving it into darker areas of rock'n'roll.
"Well, you sweet talk like an angel/With a heart full of lies," J Spaceman (aka Jason Pierce) creaks over a bittersweetly gorgeous pop ballad, backed by a suitably angelic-sounding "ooooooooo"-singing chorale. By the time the trumpets blast in, the song has built itself up to a truly epic climax -- and Pierce is still singing bleakly about how the lover who sweet-talks like an angel.
Bask in the glow for a moment. There are plenty of songs in this vein, like the warmly psychedelic, unabashedly upbeat "Soul Fire," as well as dramatic pop epics, some ghostly little folk ballads wrapped in mellotron and strings. And despite its un-intimate-sounding title, "Don't Hold Me Close" is a weirdly soothing little stretch of somnolent pop, which sounds like it was fed through an old radio.
But not all these songs are feel-good ones. The unnerving folk "Death Take Your Fiddle" is punctuated with the respirator's creak, there are a couple of swirling psychpop numbers, and a Rolling-Stonesian blues-rocker "Yeah Yeah!" And near the end, Pierce drives us into creepsville with "Borrowed Your Gun," a weird little number about a little boy telling Dad he's sorry "I borrowed your gun again/shot up your family..."
And the entire album is peppered with these little "Harmony" interludes -- hesitant piano, delicate mellotron, angelic voices, wind chimes, accordion. The spasming violin of "Harmony Four" did nothing for me, though. And I'm not sure what these noodling interludes are for, except just to... be there.
Listening to "Songs in A&E" is like sitting in a cafe with an old friend who has had a tough year, and listening to the problems that have been troubling them. You see a few new lines from all the stress, with perhaps a few moments of bitterness, but a new strength shines from their eyes. It gets a bit painful at first, but then you start appreciating them more.
And then there's the fact that the music is simply brilliant -- an orchestral tapestry of shimmering mellotron, eerie synth, blasts of smooth brass, and violins winding a gentle glowing path through the softer songs. Pierce grounds the music a bit with folky acoustics, as well as occasional blasting riffs and growling basslines. And you get a few other little touches -- wind chimes, triangles, accordion -- around the edges.
Pierce sounds kind of tired in this album -- he sounds a bit like a worn-out blues musician, even when he rocks out in "Yeah Yeah." But he definitely hasn't lost his knack for really brilliant lyrics, whether dark ("morphine, codeine, whisky, they wo't alter/The way I feel the way now that death is not around") or beautiful (""You were born on a black day shot through with starlight/and all the angels singing just about got it right").
Despite a string of noodly interludes that contribute nothing, "Songs in A&E" streams from one excellent Spiritualized song to another, full of beauty, bitterness and great music.
on 4 February 2016
"Freedom is just another word for when you've got no one left to hurt" ...apart from yourself, it seems. The usual Spiritualized preoccupations are all present - fire, soul, drug comedowns, hospitals, guns and the overuse of the word "baby". There's never any development musically or lyrically with this band, but it's all so beautifully done you can forgive the massive cliche their albums have become. Surrender to it's blissed out melancholic beauty and you'll float pleasantly in space for a while - through some smooth strings and semi-acoustic noodles strangely reminiscent of early Bowie with a dash of mid 60s Dylan, channelled through a mixing desk manned by Spector and Eno. Nothing wrong with this at all; patient recovered and free for release.
The first that struck me about Songs In A&E was how grainy Jason Pierce's voice sounds. Anyone would think he had been ill or something ..... Putting aside such crass attempts at humour it's surely common knowledge by now that Songs In A&E was recorded after a life threatening dose of pneumonia for the Spiritualized front man. Indeed the album is dedicated to the staff at The Royal London Hospital . And he does sound different ....more fragile and hoarse ,but the music is still a wonderful blast of symphonic guitars, strident bursts of brass and honeyed strings with eddying choral vocals.
This band have always had a knack of making pain -whether it be physical or emotional -sound like a rather marvellous place to be .Songs In A&E is no different here either .What's surprising is that the majority of the songs concern matters of love and faith ( in one another) rather than mortality though the life support machine breathing and cracked hymn blues of "Death Take Your Fiddle" relates to his experience directly.
"Sweet Talk " opens the album ( After one of the four brief Harmony instrumental interludes) with an appropriately saccharine chorus of girly harmonies over deliberate bass and melancholic brass. It's really lovely. However it's not as good as the fabulous "Soul On fire" which blends tender bleeding strings into the glowing choral work . It's sound even more exquisite coming after the fuzzy wah wah surge of "I Gotta Fire".
Fire seems to be an important element here because we also have the brittle ballad "Sitting On Fire" which transmutes into a divine wash of overlapping strings. "Yeah Yeah" recalls "Perfect Prescription" ( Medical connection there) Spaceman 3. The grunged up blues striated chords of "You Lie You Cheat" comes as something of a shock before the mesmerizing incremental epic hymn "Baby I'm Just A Fool" . "Don't Hold Me Close" is a hushed duet with Harmony Korine whose vocals are veiled slightly by the mix while "The Waves Crash In" rhythmically cleverly mirrors that of waves crashing in and showcases Pierce's true talent as an arranger to the full for the instrumental overloaded coda.
Where "Borrowed Your Gun" fits into the thematic tone of this album is a mystery to me ."Daddy I'm sorry / I borrowed your gun again/Shot up your family " . I take it Pierce is being metaphorical because then it makes more sense . Lyrically the album seems simplistic and repetitive at times but there are lightning bolt moments of poetic clarity .Closing song "Goodnight Goodnight" is a creaking chamber pop lament but ends on a note of cautious optimism. "There's better things that you will know" he croaks.
"Songs In A&E " is a more uplifting album than I expected and is actually quite diverse musically ,which again is something I wasn't really anticipating . It alternates between bitterness, despair , defiance , compassion, resignation but always to the strident rhythm of a chock full human heart. In this respect it's a wonderfully apt connotation of what( i think) it would be to be seriously ill. It glows with a healthy dose of soulful fire.