The two most recent Spiritualized albums have seen Jason Pierce stare death in the face. He may not play this fact up in interviews, but it’s all over the records themselves. The outstanding ‘Death, Take Your Fiddle’ was the sound of Townes Van Zandt literally waiting ’round to die, mixing a rattling respirator and wheezing harmonica with the most blackly affecting folk melody Pierce has yet pilfered. Sadly, too much of the rest of Songs in A&E - geddit? – was J. Spaceman-by-numbers: hell, the tracklist featured songs entitled ‘I Gotta Fire’, ‘Soul on Fire’ and ‘Sitting on Fire’ – ONE AFTER THE FUCKING OTHER – and none are as good as 2001′s ‘On Fire’. It’s still probably better than you remember it, but be honest – it’s gathering dust on your shelf right now, right?
So four years on – in which Pierce has once again been hospitalised, has performed a full set of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, and repeatedly pushed back the release of his new record to make room for some extra tweaking – we now come to Sweet Heart Sweet Light. And, to its credit, it begins by cutting straight to the electric mainline with lead single ‘Hey Jane’. While it ostensibly sounds like two very different songs clumsily tacked together with a bit of drone, they’re two great songs – and if you treat it like that, you don’t even notice that nine minutes have passed. The whole thing thunders, half ‘Run Run Run’-style swagger, half dazzle’n’drone, and the layer-upon-layer of sheer sound doesn’t ever threaten to smother the track, even when the flutes and glockenspiels burst into the mix towards the end.
Unfortunately, this is the only time the more-is-more approach works. ‘Little Girl’ throws a spanner in the works right away, a pale xerox of the jubilant ‘Do It All Over Again’, its ersatz soul rhythms and gospel cries of “get it on!” doing nothing to stop this from being one of Pierce’s weakest efforts. The relatively stripped-back ‘Freedom’ cribs from ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ and throws in a late, languid country-tinged highlight, while once you get past Poppy Spaceman’s frankly strange lyrics on closer ‘So Long You Pretty Thing’ (with lyrics about “scary Jesuses”, it’s hard not to think Papa Pierce has been merciless in indoctrinating his daughter’s record collection), there’s a much-deserved moment of redemption waiting for you.
He’s also admitted drawing new influence from his late-nineties masterwork, and it shows. With its double-dutch wordplay, ‘Get What You Deserve’ is a lame stab at revisiting ‘Think I’m in Love’, ‘Headin’ for the Top Now’ is a low-voltage ‘Electricity’ and the Dr. John co-write ‘I Am What I Am’ sounds like ‘Cop Shoot Cop…’ (another Dr. John collaboration) in miniature – albeit with backing vocals copped wholesale from Talking Heads’ ‘Slippery People’. And it all draaaaaaaags. Extending the same idea is all well and good, but there has to be an idea to begin with; most tracks average out at seven minutes, at least two of which tend to be extraneous. Worse still, the saccharine ‘Too Late’ feels like it runs for double its four minutes – and throws in yet more “fire” talk for good measure.
It’s weird to say that an album that has had this much time and attention lavished on its making is weak, but there’s not really any other word for it. Sweet Heart Sweet Light may be an attempt to return to the Spiritualized of yore, but one listen and you’ll realise that this isn’t the band you remember them being.