The paradox at the core of the Spiritualized canon. J Spaceman as keen exponent of motif; elements of evocation – heady, naturally – chiselled from each slab of sound with care, with diligence. It’s how the subject matter is strip-mined, a triptych of love, loss and salvation that reverberates long after each stanza has climaxed. It’s in the unorthodox chord progression, fuzzy tricks and feints that can be tracked from song to song – and it’s in the fragile beauty behind both composition and execution, something that suggests a cunning understanding of left-field, sonic heritage.
The counterpoint to this has been the constant evolution in stylistic touch over the previous six studio albums, these motifs framed by a shifting allegiance to musical vogue. It’s a form of unforced progression that so attractive about the Spiritualized back catalogue – the subjugation of space-rock, that subsequently segues into free-jazz, dirty blues, gospel. Orchestral grand ideas that follows through to the stripped-back garage-enthused, then grows into something intimate, meditative, as if blessed with the wisdom that (apparently) comes with age.
Hence Sweet Heart Sweet Light is an interesting proposition; the first Spiritualized release that doesn’t set a fire beneath the underpinning aesthetic (at least in strictly musical terms). This doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good album – it’s a fascinating, alluring record, loaded with warmth and tenderness. Perhaps Pierce’s most intuitively mellowed album, and almost certainly his most graceful. What it does lack however is a sense of thematic cohesion behind each arrangement (note – not lyrically, where these songs retain all the blissed-out potency that’s such a prominent feature of every disc).
Instead, we’re presented with a thoughtful suite of songs that carry a deeply retrospective feel, revisiting various points along the Spaceman time-line. The implication that musically, we may have slipped this way before. ‘Little Girl’ sounds like it belongs on Let It Come Down. ‘Too Late’ and ‘Freedom’ should have appeared on Songs From A & E. ‘Headin’ For The Top’ and ‘I Am What I Am’ – Ladies And Gentlemen (you get the idea).
There’s a difficulty in being just that little bit obsessive about a certain act – the compulsion to over-analyse from first listen onwards, to leech onto a context that may only be present in this listener’s headphones instead of framing the album as a singularity, an enjoyable audio experience. And again, this is certainly isn’t a negative review. A pre-release copy has been pretty much the only visitor to the turntable this week – as such the album’s subtleties have grown as my perception has widened, and it’s intimate feel, its confident craftsmanship have been the rewards from repeated plays (it’s a grower). There’s also an overriding fragility that embraces the listener, something warming beyond the familiar lyrical aesthetic that been pressing buttons for years (perhaps something to do with a detectable frailness to Pierce’s vocal – hopefully not indicative of his well-publicized health problems of late).
There are also some significant, mesmerizing highlights. Lead single ‘Hey Jane’ is a prowling, swinging marathon of a track benefiting from a sly false-ending at its midpoint. ‘Headin’ For The Top’ is a formidable piece of deceptive stoner rock, whilst ‘Get What You Deserve’ is Spaceman at his very best – a fuzzy, angled song built upon a monolithic, cultured riff and a rich texture that would have been overcooked in less well-versed paws. Hence the inherent problem – the peaks fail to attain any uniformity, the record somewhat having the feel of a compilation.
Sweet Heart Sweet Light isn’t a revolutionary album. It’s had mixed reviews, several following the repeat prescription route of ‘heard all before’. Yet make no mistake – it’s an intriguing album whose presence grows, and it’s well worth a tranche of your hard-earned cash.