Spiritualized is one of those “love ‘em/hate ‘em” bands for me. For every number I like, there’s a piece of self-indulgent crap I don’t get. Perhaps if I took drugs at the rate of Spiritualized leader Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman), the sprawling psychedelic anthems would rock my world, and not sound like random noise. And I’ll admit that the line between “self-indulgent” and “genius” is thin and highly subjective. (I grew up listening to prog rock, after all, and still have a soft spot for bands that show off their musical chops.) When he damps down the psychedelic ambitions and lets the noise serve the music, Pierce is a great songwriter, as Spiritualized’s newest release, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, amply demonstrates.
Gospel and soul elements weave with psychedelic touches throughout the album. The mix of Pierce’s aching world-weary voice and sweet, strong female backing vocals is one of the hallmarks of the sound. There’s a lovely call and response on “I Am What I Am” that illustrates this approach perfectly. It’s a basic gospel-soul track but a fuzz-laden guitar squawks in the background and acid-jazz trumpets squeal in breaks, lifting the song into different territory. Similarly, the end of “Get What You Deserve” features freeform psychedelia on the album as discordant guitar notes sound against lush strings.
On the straightforward (by Spiritualized standards) side, “Life Is a Problem” is a pure gospel number with Pierce’s voice cracking as he pleas to Jesus. Then there are the lovely harmonies and quiet gospel “oohs” on the sweet ballad “Freedom” and gospel-soul of “Little Girl” and “Too Late,” featuring lush strings and ringing piano.
The album is anchored by several longer tracks – “Hey Jane,” “Headin’ for the Top Now” and “So Long You Pretty Thing” – that all, to varying extents, feature Spiritualized’s trademark drone. “Hey Jane” is the strongest of these, opening with thick slices of crunchy guitar and a glam rock feel, before switching gears halfway through with the lovely paean “Sweet heart sweet light love of my life” to the lady of the title. “So Long You Pretty Thing” is also great, particularly toward the end with an uplifting soul chorus and soaring gospel chorus. Only “Headin’ for the Top Now” misses the mark, a seemingly endless (although just over eight minute) repetition of the same melody grinding along accompanied by jarring “wall of sound” noises. It simply never comes together.
Aside from this one miss, this is a great album: soulful, expressive, melodic, with lyrics that combine sweet melancholy with hopefulness (perhaps an expression of Pierce’s recent health problems). Definitely on the “love ‘em” side of my Spiritualized equation.