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The woebegone wonders of Spiritualized

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Sometimes it seems that Jason Pierce—the frontman and founder of melodramatic baroque-rock enthusiasts Spiritualized—makes albums so he has a vehicle for another inevitably sad story. With drugs to his left, God to his right and some mixture of a choir, an orchestra and a Britpop band at his back, Pierce has spent the last two decades making records that attempt to beat back the torment of existence.

Like a blues musician slowly giving himself to good gospel, Pierce has long used his music to strike a balance between malevolence and romance, to establish a framework in which addiction and death and pain become avenues to transcendence.

Indeed, it seems that most every time Pierce releases an album, something terrible has just happened in his life. Depending upon whom you ask, Spiritualized's consensus masterpiece, the 1997 album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, emerged as a result of his struggles with addiction and/or the decision by his girlfriend and bandmate Kate Radley to leave Spiritualized for the affections of Richard Ashcroft. Throughout its perfect 70 minutes, Pierce teeters at self-destruction (the album-ending ellipsis "Cop Shoot Cop" is a feedback loop of devastation) while trying to move toward anything else, even if it's the cool calm of another hit.

Nearly a decade later, as he was writing what became Spiritualized's sixth album, Pierce almost died of bilateral pneumonia. After an extended hospital stay and much public worry about his health, Pierce returned to the studio to finish Songs in A&E, an album that directly confronted loss ("Death take your fiddle/ and play a song for me") even as it thanked the Royal London Hospital for saving his life.

Pierce finished Sweet Heart Sweet Light, the seventh and most recent Spiritualized record, in a haze brought about by experimental drugs—this time, he had a prescription—to combat a degenerative liver disease. Rather than tying the album's text directly to the problem, Pierce simply put the word "Huh?" on the cover to encapsulate the frame of mind in which he finished the record. "I was popping myself up with these chemicals every day, so it felt like I wasn't right in my own head while I was making the record," he told Pitchfork earlier this year. "'Huh?' was the best way to put that across; the cover also looks like a medical logo or a chemical symbol." Of course, above the string-borne lullabies and charging rock numbers, there's a hook of misery; remember, it's a Spiritualized LP. Despite its warm title, the new Sweet Heart Sweet Light is sometimes unflinchingly cruel. "Used to care, but I took care of that," Pierce howls at one point. "We should be heading for the top now," he later answers. "But we'll be crawling on the floor." But those downtrodden impulses are tempered here, with the realization that there's still time to find happiness, that life is "filled with stuff that ain't yet dead."

This constant flux between depravity and deliverance is just as central to the appeal of Pierce's music as the enormous sound or adventurous shifts of Spiritualized records. Throughout his catalogue, Pierce has baited the bad things in the universe as though he were a bluesman waiting at the crossroads to give the devil his soul. Even the earliest tapes of Pierce's previous band, Spacemen 3, hinge on a song called "Walkin' with Jesus," a sort of bet-you-can't-kill-me prayer to God. During "Home of the Brave," back in 1997, taking his breakfast "off of a mirror" was his only way to keep his heart and head from hurting, even as he acknowledged the process could kill him.

Jason Pierce, then, is a rock 'n' roll hero who has either forced himself into or found himself in underdog situations. Time and again, he's emerged not only with a good story for interviews but with songs that turn the scars of those stories into something worth singing.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Pierced blues."

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