"But it's the truth even if it didn't happen"
-Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
With Spiritualized's new (and brilliant) record, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, out last week, the inevitable has to happen. If it's so damn good, we need to compare it to the band's best record, 1997's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, one of those definitive musical statements from the '90s. It's a bit reductive, sure, and the best SHSL can hope to gain from this is the "best album since..." tag (which, to be contradictory for a minute, it totally is). But more than that, both albums, and Ladies and Gentlemen... in particular, seem to invite a kind of autobiographical reading, like they are direct lines into main man Jason Pierce's life.
Here's the thing: they're not. Yes, he was going through treatment for degenerative liver disease during the recording of the new album, and yes it sounds by turns excruciating and healing. But the causal connection between his condition and the record is flimsy since, really, the lyrical tendencies of the record are more about what music can do than about corporeal healing. Ladies and Gentlemen... is even more problematic as an autobiographical document, though that's how it's been talked about for much of its history.
To be fair, the album is plenty celebrated for its impressive, ambitious layering and meshing of gospel and blues textures with a hint of overcast brit-pop and a shitload of rock-and-roll sweat. But when talk turns to what it means, we start drawing lines to Pierce (then operating more under the moniker J. Spaceman) and his life. Of course we were, because dude made no bones about his drug and alcohol use, and his lyrics on this record hone in on them closer than ever. The curse-laden frustration of "Come Together" focuses on "the tracks of time, these tracks of mine" and how Little Johnny "fed the ache." The narcotic dependency of the record extends to love, sometimes conflating a high with love -- as in, "all I want in life is just a bit of love to take the pain away" -- and other times shifting that dependency and false relief to a person on songs like "Stay With Me" where Pierce pines "You make it all so fine."
Around this are the squalling guitars and crashing drums and affecting space and texture that sell that narcotic haze, that paint Pierce as awash in something -- drugs, heartache, whatever -- that keeps him muddled, distant, yet still wanting. It's an album about that desire, about how it eludes us, about how we thwart our own chances at getting it. And so, with Pierce himself awash in drugs, it's easy to confuse him with his narrative personas, with Little Johnny and the rest. It's also particularly interesting for this album, since it's the last one with girlfriend Kate Radley before she so infamously left him and married the Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft. So it's not just a drug-haze record. It's also a break-up record. The heartache is real, folks.
Except it isn't. Or, rather, it's not his. Not in that direct-line sort of way. Nevermind that most of the music for the record was written while the couple was still together, but really the point of Ladies and Gentlemen... is that it isn't Pierce's life, it isn't autobiography, it isn't real. It's a performance, a pop spectacle of the darkest and most brilliant order. It's all about artifice and construction. The liner notes and artwork imagine the record not as a collection of music, but as prescription medicine. "Spritualized is used to treat the heart and soul," it says. There's a recommended dose ("once, twice daily or as recommended...), and mention's the band's two previous albums as alternatives if "symptoms persist."
Yes, this is darkly humorous, meant to reflect the self-inflicted haze of the record, but it also immediately confronts us with an idea: Pierce is presenting this to be what it is not. He is constructing an image, a product. This flows right into the music itself. The title track -- complete with Radley's deadpan spoken-word intro -- is built on an immediate tension: it sounds like the relief the words long for and haven't found yet. Blips and beeps scratch and cut through that veneer, sounding like medical machinery, like the real treatment needed. It's not a heartfelt admission so much as a set of layers that set up themes more than it is.
The album's immaculate construction and pacing -- moving from agitated rock to thick and fuzzy space-pop -- makes it feel like some bizarre musical, like a rock opera without the awkwardly applied narrative arc. It's a cohesive whole, one long 70-minute performance that plugs Pierce into a musical tradition rather than putting him on record to confess. He emphasizes this point -- the idea of performer, of (as he does on SHSL) the evocative power of music -- by using other people's words. He famously used parts of Elvis's "I Can't Help Falling In Love" on the opening track until Presley's estate put a (temporary) stop on it. And the epic closer "Cop Shoot Cop" may be brilliant for its shifts from control to chaos, but the best thing Pierce does is reshape lines from John Prine's "Sam Stone" to fit this new drug-troubled tale.
The use of that song in particular is important to note, because Pierce has nothing in common with the likes of Sam Stone. Stone was an American character, undone from fighting in a useless war, a family man who threw it all away. The characters of Ladies and Gentlemen... are younger, more careless and ragged, their angers and frustrations formless, with no clear impetus, but deeply felt just the same. Their pain is not Sam Stone's pain, even as they (as written by Pierce) try their best to fit it into their lives. What all this says is that Pierce isn't interested in telling his own tale, in rooting around in his own closet for his own skeletons, this isn't a baring of the soul. It's a representation of something bigger than him. We latch onto the straight connection to him because, well, it's easier that way. The tragic, romantic notion of the drugged-up musical genius, the tabloid-fervor of Radley and Ashcroft -- we want the album to be about those things because those things are fun to talk about, because we like art that comes out of personal anguish. Because the image of the tortured artist is always alive and well.
But, again, it's just an image. And here's the other thing: it doesn't matter if this is Pierce's story. It doesn't mean less because it's not. In fact, Ladies and Gentlemen... is all the more convincing and all the more bittersweet and heartbreaking because it isn't his story. It gives us the undeniable size and beauty of a rock spectacle (the immediate rush, the high) and the deeply felt details and convincing emotions (the hurt underneath) without ever resorting to woe-is-me solipsism. The words on this album are the words of the lost, of people so far gone they're buying their own snake oil but feeling truly healed by it. These are folks that may not make it back, even as they sing of that light ever fading from the edge of their darkness. Pierce, meanwhile, is clear-eyed and in control here, building a musical world to flounder in, to make mistakes, to find the object of all that irrepressible desire. To maybe, just maybe, be redeemed. This isn't autobiography. It's not real. It's something much better: it's honest.