"Epic" is not a word that music critics should use lightly, but in the case of Spiritualized, the honorific fits. Famed for transcendent drones, bluesy riffs and soulful gospel singers, the British outfit makes the kind of exultant, expansive, definitively epic rock 'n' roll that bursts out of earbuds and consumes listeners whole.
Jason Pierce, the band's frontman, doesn't hold back on his new album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, which came out via Fat Possum Records in April. "I wanted it to be the most bombastic, grand, glorious, ecstatic sound, but I also wanted to make it intimate and fragile and kind," he says, "and all in the same five seconds of music."
That might sound over-the-top, but it's not far from the truth. From the soaring jangle-pop of "Hey Jane" to the explosive guitar noise of "Headin' for the Top Now" to the rapturous spiritualism of album closer "So Long You Pretty Thing," the band's seventh album is a bold statement about the vitality of youth, the pains of growing old and the medicinal power of rock.
But if you saw the CD in a record store and you'd never heard of the band, you might just be left wondering, Huh?
After all, that's exactly what it says on the cover. Set against an ambulance-white background, bordered by a green octagon that resembles some kind of medical logo, the light-blue lettering asks you: "Huh?" The question reflects Pierce's state of mind when he was recording the album. After years of pushing his body to its limits, he was working from home while undergoing an experimental medical trial of pills and injections to treat progressive, potentially life-threatening liver disease.
"I spent a good two days of every week in the hospital, so I was surrounded by all of that," he says about his confused mindset, speaking by phone from a tour stop in Detroit. "I didn't do anything I would normally do. I didn't enjoy anything I normally enjoyed during that year. It was the first year of my life since I was a kid with a proper, enforced sobriety: I can't fuck around. I have to get on with this treatment and do it."
Though he's healthy now, Pierce is no stranger to drugs and danger. His former band, pioneering drone-rockers Spacemen 3, followed the motto: "Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to." Pierce kept flying high after starting Spiritualized in 1990, going so far as to package the band's 1997 masterpiece, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, like a pill.
In 2005, he almost died when he came down with a case of double pneumonia. In a London hospital, his lungs had filled with fluid and his heart stopped twice. He references the ordeal in the title of his previous album, 2008's Songs in A&E, a reference to the British term for Emergency Room.
A firm believer in music as medicine, Pierce made Sweet Heart Sweet Light to help get through his treatment for liver disease, an exhaustive process that he describes as "fucking awful." He wanted to make a pop record akin to early Beatles—something a listener could play in the car. But making simple, unchallenging music turned out to be harder than he thought.
"I got this idea that the more abstract and distorted the ideas were, the more you can kind of hide behind that," he says. "With pop music, there's nowhere to hide. You feel really exposed. I don't think I was ready for that."
Straying even further from the blissfully cosmic drone-rock of the band's first albums, Pierce piles on choral voices and orchestral strings, mixes in heartening piano and plumbs influences as varied as Jimi Hendrix and Giorgio Moroder. "Hey Jane" was originally supposed to last three minutes but eventually expanded to eight.
"I've failed on the simplest of rules in pop," he says.
Still, highlights like "So Long You Pretty Thing" are as perfect as pop comes. A three-part, nearly eight-minute epic that features a duet with Pierce's adolescent daughter, Poppy, the track is heroic, damaged and deeply beautiful.
Pierce isn't religious, but the desperation hangs on his worn voice as he reaches out to Jesus for salvation: "I got no reason to be living anymore." When the song drops into an orgiastic climax of triumphant horns and heavenly voices, the 46-year-old rock 'n' roller bids farewell to a younger self. "God save your little soul," he sings.
While Pierce found making the album so therapeutic, he says he can hardly make sense of it now. He likens it to a toothache—all-consuming when it's around, but hard to recall when it's gone. Asked how he feels his effort turned out, he's at a loss for words.
"I don't know. I really don't know. I haven't got a fucking clue," he says. "Except the weirdest thing is, people seem to like it. I really wasn't expecting that."
Spiritualized plays with Nikki Lane at Belly Up Tavern on Sunday, May 20. spiritualized.com