Ah, 1997. That year. Not so much a collection of disparate days brought together under a numeric banner; if I’m digging around for a definition, my gut feeling suggests labelling these twelve months an experience. Heightened. Sensual. Inordinately complex, and – perhaps – still partially unresolved, even all these years later. Because this is an album immune to dispassionate discussion – such is its embedded nature in wider contexts. Record and year and so much more, permanently entwined. A nebula of thoughts and feelings; All I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away, the Spaceman sings. And whilst that’s not a sentiment I abide by (if anything, there was a wee bit too much love about in ’97), it is an empathetic part of the fabric of things.
Apologies in advance if this isn’t an easy read – to be honest, it’s not particularly straight-forward to write. A process of disentanglement rather than an exercise in sentence construction, the desperate beauty of Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space framed against the stark profile of these cooling embers.
Look – it’s my favourite ever record for so many complicated reasons – you’ll have to excuse me for gushing in various, obtuse patterns.
Were I to have been earning my keep as a music journalist back in 1997 – cycling around the offices of the New Musical Express on a Raleigh Chopper whilst babbling to a mannequin about the time I snorted ketamine from the nipples of that girl in the Aphex Twin video – I’d probably have reviewed this record something like this:
Spiritualized’s third album sees Jason Pierce relieved from the drone-sponsored template of previous albums. In its place is a broader canvas, upon which the default Spaceman terminology of love, drugs and redemption are explored through rich seams of melodic dissonance, the space-rock garnished with hints of gospel, free-jazz, hazy blues, and a confessional tone that at times comes close to heart-breaking.
That’s my one attempt at objectivity; thankfully I’m not a music journalist – I have a soul, which precludes me from that particular vocation – and therefore have no need for such a generic arsenal of descriptive words. Instead, I’d define this album through its physical impact; dropping the needle makes me tremble. Every time. Without fail. Its pharmaceutical packaging (photograph above the words courtesy of japanese forms) is particularly apt, considering the side effects. I do not operate heavy machinery whilst listening to this record. It may make you drowsy – if the definition of ‘drowsy’ involves being transported to an imaginarium of the emotions. I don’t think that Nipper – the HMV dog – invented the LP in order to make humans fight the urge to cry, but then again I’d had no idea prior to release date just how severely this disc would impact upon my perception. It goes back to that concept of blurred boundaries between autobiography and a suite of songs – it isn’t always readily apparent where one ends and the other begins.
“What specifically is it about this record that turns you into a gibbering wreck, Mr LGM?” I hear you ask.
It’s Kate Radley, standing in a telephone box. The dispassionate annunciation: Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. If she’d mouthed it in any other fashion (the 2009 re-release, bonus discs full of extraneous material, kindly includes the phone box out-takes), it wouldn’t have worked. As it is, the words hang there; unaddressed, enigmatic, statuesque.
It’s the title track itself. The heart-wrenching, in-the-round fragility. Such clean simplicity, yet it’s inordinately complex once you begin to feel the ripples. It’s a track that famously comes in two versions: initial pressings of the album has the song seguing seamlessly into Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’. I actually prefer the version the Elvis estate didn’t object to (the intended, with ‘Can’t Help Falling…’, was reinstated for the 2009 reissue). The bleeps and buzzes help to accentuate the arrangement’s remote, tender quality – a level of disconnect that resonates through all twelve songs.
In fact, it is this degree of disconnect that’s at the core of how this album functions as a thematic whole. Lyrically, this is uncompromising stuff, the aforementioned love/drugs/redemption triptych manifesting itself with a level of intensity not usually experienced outside of an Elizabeth Smart novel. That Ladies And Gentlemen has this remote, otherworldly feel – odd chord progressions, electronic pulses chirruping against the fuzzy instrumentation – it frames this emotional exposure, ensures that the sentiment never grows to be cloying or overbearing.
I’ve written before of how the Spiritualized back-cat thrums with a dexterous application of motif; a musical continuum, strands that flow from track to track. It’s something that this LP has in droves; shared traits and overlapping chords, the pharmaceutical buzz of ‘Come Together’ seguing elegantly into the startling wash of ‘I Think I’m In Love’. And so it is with the vocalised context, words all powerful and evocative. That the lyrics chime so strongly with my perception isn’t so much to do with me being lovesick, strung out, or angling for benediction – those matters of the heart that we’ve all experienced carry a specific intensity, making it natural to empathise with much here. Rather, it’s the combination of words and music that makes all this work. I don’t even miss you, but that’s ‘cus I’m fucked up, intoned over a keyboard riff that itself is being steadily subverted by dissonant waves. In interviews, Pierce has frequently distanced himself from any notion that the album is autobiographical in inclination; either way, there’s a sense of urgent sincerity behind the lyrical patterns. Essences that flower into something beautiful when backlit by the oblique physicality of the music.
The other vital component to all of this is the weight of its musical ambition. Both Lazer Guided Melodies and Pure Phase have a finely-balanced quality to their sound, arrangements in which the detailing is delicate and graceful. Ladies And Gentlemen however is a much bigger record. Grander statements, a less controlled emotional framework that slots dynamically with the wide and expressive scope. Cameos are plentiful and enticing; the muted brass and flamed harmonica on ‘All Of My Thoughts’. Baritone sax on ‘The Individual’. Pretty much everything but the kitchen sink on the bruising, flayed instrumental that is ‘No God Only Religion’ (including Gallon Drunk’s Terry Edwards on trumpet). Add The London Community Gospel Choir on the benediction of ‘Cool Waves’, and (famously) the lugubrious, blissed out piano of Dr John on the seventeen-plus epic minutes that is album closer ‘Cop Shoot Cop’, and you have a cast befitting the album’s ambitious nature. Record as acute statement.
Re-reading all the above, and it becomes readily apparent that I’ve only scratched the surface of why this LP defines everything that is right and holy with both popular music and life in general. There’s no mention of just why ‘I Think I’m In Love’ is such a clever slice of sonic endeavour – wonderful bass hook and pedal guitar refrain, to blissed-out, multi-tracked vocal, to a self-depreciating, call and answer dénouement. No reference to how well-crafted the tear-inducing sentiment of ‘Broken Heart’ is. ‘Electricity’ is an electrifying visit to garage rock territory. The dreamy folds of ‘Stay With Me’ resonate long after the run-out groove. And I could go on. And on, and on (my book, Floating In Space And The Sad Fan Boy Reaction has a June 2025 publication date). The point being that defining both this album, and what it means to me, isn’t a succinct exercise. Because it’s utterly integral to who I am as an adult. To how I perceive all that modern living shit we all appear to be engaged with. I’m not exaggerating when I admit to crying at this record; late at night, behind closed doors. I guess I’ll be buried with a copy under my arm – the blister pack wrapping undisturbed, of course.
Spiritualized / Cool Waves