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Spiritualized - Songs in A & E

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Artist: Spiritualized

Album: Songs in A & E

Label: Fontana Universal

Review date: Jun. 6, 2008

It's been some time since Spiritualized's last album, 2003's Amazing Grace, an uneven if moderately rewarding album that, following the oppressively ornate Let It Come Down, seemed to find Jason Pierce at a bit of a loss. Obviously, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space was a difficult act to follow: all too often, releasing a universally-acclaimed album leads to a stumbling sequel. The artist inevitably faces the question of how to duplicate the success without rehashing the formula. Let It Come Down seemed to lose the songs amidst the orchestration, while Amazing Grace was in some ways an overreaction to that problem, in which the songs weren't quite able to support themselves. But while the efforts since the landmark Ladies and Gentlemen have fallen short, it's interesting to note that the many other bands attempting to follow in the album's footsteps have fared no better. Perhaps not since Phil Spector's production successes has a pop producer spawned so many unsuccessful imitators.

Since 2003, Pierce has apparently spent some time recovering from a mysterious, serious illness; according to some reports, a case of double pneumonia that almost took his life. Regardless of the specifics, Pierce's illness and the time away has paradoxically changed and yet not changed Spiritualized. With Songs in A & E (the title of which is apparently a reference to the accident and emergency ward), we're treated to a rawer type of song, but still imbued with his style of arrangement. The first noticeable thing is the roughness of Pierce's voice -- it no longer has the somewhat dreamy smoothness of the past. Here the vocals sound, for the first time, closer to death than to birth. Ironically, the occasional hoarseness fits with the songs here, or perhaps the cause and effect are reversed. Either way, the sense of world-weariness permeates the lyrics and the singer equally.

Those vocals are couched in a bit of a backwoods, old-style Americana on several of the songs, most of which are based on simple acoustic guitar strums and melancholy lyrics. "Death Take Your Fiddle" is at its heart, like most of the songs here, a blues chant, a rather beautiful description of someone tired of life. "I Gotta Fire," with its lazy wah guitar, is at first a surprisingly rough bluesy song, immediately identifiable as Spiritualized by the small touches of ornamentation. The first in a series of songs invoking fire, it's exhilarating as it builds from its initial bareness. The drums kick in, then the guitar grows thicker, and more layers enter as it progresses.

"Soul on Fire" and "Baby I'm Just a Fool" are classic songs with Pierce's almost-trademark orchestral lushness, the former a memorable piece of sing-along sadness and the latter the album's longest song at seven minutes. It's a string-infused paean to lost love, with an effective drum breakdown as it unspools, before cresting again to the finish.

Between many of the songs are short pieces entitled simply "Harmony 1" through "Harmony 6," instrumental (save for one) interludes composed by Pierce for friend Harmony Korine -- hence the ironic titles for short droning pieces. Another Korine connection comes on the short "Don't Hold Me Close," a duet with Korine's wife Rachel. A quiet, slow song, it feels somewhat bland in comparison with the rest of the album.

"I Gotta Fire" and "You Lie You Cheat" are pretty much the only real rockers here, as most of the album takes its time. In lesser hands the result might have been a collection of enervated, listless songs, particularly given the overall melancholy in which the album is steeped. In fact, some might in all honesty find it so. But Pierce manages a depth of detail that, in conjunction with his way with melody, succeeds in making most of the songs memorable and individualized. "The Waves Crash In" could have been monotonous, but instead the sing-song feel is oddly comforting. "Borrowed Your Gun" is a tad predictable but the spiritual, sorrowful feel is also effective.

When "Good Night Goodnight" comes along, the slow sad lullaby's plucked guitar and violin are an appropriate closer for the album -- Pierce has earned his rest, and the 50 minutes of Songs in A & E feel complete and ample. The album may not set the world on fire like Ladies and Gentlemen, but it stands as the best Spiritualized album since that milestone, and a worthy successor. Pierce may sound here like he's nearly done, but we can certainly hope for more to come.

By Mason Jones

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