Album: Sweet Heart Sweet Light
Label: Fat Possum
Review date: Apr. 17, 2012
It doesn’t feel like four years have passed since Spiritualized’s last studio album, 2008’s Songs in A&E, but so they have. Sweet Heart Sweet Light is Jason “Spaceman” Pierce’s album-length homage to all the things he loves in rock ‘n’ roll. The resulting songs span from vintage rock to sparse, piano-driven balladry, but all are immediately recognizable as Pierce creations. Nonetheless, the variety and the statement of intent did bring to mind the question of what, exactly, does he mean by rock ‘n’ roll?
The energy level fluctuates like a roller coaster through ballads and fuzz excursions. The central peak is “Heading For The Top,” an eight-minute blast of broken-sounding guitars and pounding piano notes with Spaceman’s classic wasted vocals. The ongoing up-and-down melody and unceasing rhythmic drive is entirely trance-inducing.
There are a number of songs that make one think, from the start, “classic Spiritualized.” Layered guitars, bleating horns, organ and piano pulsing or chiming underneath, then the piled-up strings coming in: these are the foundations that we’ve come to expect, together with the tired, melancholic voice and lyrics. But there’s no doubt that Sweet Heart Sweet Light steps away from this formula more than any recent Spiritualized album. “Mary” makes me think of the recent remaking of ‘70s rock that Ethan Miller’s Howlin’ Rain brings, albeit adorned with strings and signature guitar squall. “Little Girl” rides a compelling chorus into a realm of orchestral pop that strays toward the grandiose but never goes over the top.
The album’s repeating themes of heartache, loss and pain play out across the lyrics, culminating in the final pair of songs when Pierce directly addresses religious topics. “Life Is A Problem” is a brief gospel tune of soaring strings and strained vocals; “This life is too long / My willpower’s never too strong” leads into the finale, “So Long You Pretty Thing,” in which the Lord is asked for help “because I’m hurting inside” and “it ain’t easy.” The slow groove is filled with organ and strings, while the vocals are among the prettiest he’s ever committed to tape. When the song bursts into flower, the guitar breaks through and Pierce rises up to meet it. Whether you’re God fearing or not, it’s a fine performance.
Which brings us back around to our initial question: what does Pierce have in mind when he’s focused on rock ‘n’ roll? Looking at the span of the past 60-plus years, there’s obviously no single thread — and looking at the many disparate themes, it’s easier to find those not embodied herein than those that are. Sweet Heart Sweet Light is no rebel paean; it’s not a rough ode to being an outsider — not exactly. It is, though, a collection of pretty raw, honest admissions of loss, guilt, regret and loneliness. Recurring themes of emotional pain and uncertainty mingle with the occasional bombast, and point the album back to rock’s basis in blues. Certainly, Pierce’s feverish production layering is at the opposite end of the spectrum from stripped-down Delta blues, but the lyrical themes and worn vocals connect directly to that antecedent.
This uneven album takes time to break in, but each successive spin deepens the relationships among the songs and reveals more details. How listeners interpret the connection with rock’s deep history is up to them, but researching the question will be worth their while.