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Spiritualized Songs in A&E Review

Album. Released 2008.  

BBC Review

About the frailty of love and mystery of individual existence.

Chris Jones 2008

As the old cliche goes; reports of Jason Pierce's demise have been greatly exaggerated. His recent escape from double pneumonia has been widely talked of, but it may be wrong to place too much emphasis on the whole brush-with-death aspect of Songs In A & E. Most of these songs were written before his bout with illness with the newest material here being some gorgeous instrumental interludes (H1-6) composed in honour of friend, Harmony Korine for whom he composed the score for last year's film, Mister Lonely (and whose wife, Rachel duets with him on Don't Hold Me Close). Yet it was the songs' very prescience that made returning to the project such a source of turmoil. ''Think I'll drink myself into a coma, I''ll take every way out I can find'' he croaks on Death Take Your Fiddle. The song even has the faltering breath of a patient on a respirator as its accompaniment. The grim reaper's boney fingerprints are all over this album.

But Songs In A&E is ultimately positive and strangely life-affirming despite ending with the words: ''funeral parlour, funeral parlour...''. He's been brought back to us with a sense of renewed purpose and even vigour. The gospel choir is still here as is the orchestra and, despite the constant reference to fire and flames, this album is more heavenly than demonic.

Since Ladies And Gentlemen... Pierce has been toying with American song forms, from gospel to rock. Now with an abundance of acoustic-driven songs he adds a backwoods folk ambience. But with the Spaceman now the only remaining member of the original clan, and with two of Julian Cope's sidemen involved on a regular basis it makes perfect sense that the most hopped-up moments here are reminiscent of early Can. Pierce's voice, ravaged by illlness and time now resembles that of the krautrock legend's first singer, Malcolm Mooney. On the rattling wah wah fest of I Gotta Fire it sits somewhere between pleading and resignation and lifts these two chord vamps into testaments of spiritual and emotional exorcism. A song like Sitting On Fire has him paying for past crimes. New love is pitted against an old flame that threatens to drag him back from the edge of release and redemption. But such honesty just conveys a maturity that's been missing from his more hedonistic excesses in the past. Kevin Shields has been quoted talking about how Pierce/Spaceman has a 'realness' that sets him apart and maybe it's this quality that's finally come to the fore.

Yes, the huge slabs of Phil Spector-on-acid noise that he conjured up on Let It Come Down have been tamed somewhat, but those worried that this is some unplugged affair will be pleased to know that Pierce still doesn't know the meaning of restraint, when it matters. The album's central wig-out moment, Baby I'm Just A Fool, builds from simple strumming to a free jazz blow out.

This was always Pierce's genius: The ability to take such simplicity and make it seem effortlessly affecting. And while the final song, Goodnight Goodnight, may return us to the post-sartori come down that he specialises in, you feel that what drives him now is more emotional than chemical, just as he always protested. Now, more than ever, Spiritualized are less about the trip into the outer limits and more about the frailty of love and mystery of individual existence. As such, Songs... may be his finest moment.

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