Spiritualized, "Songs in A & E" / by laurel

A near death experience will do crazy things to a person. My own near death experience (described in infuriating detail here) was quite the experience, though I was likely no nearer to death gasping in the squalls of the Santiam river than I am now, clacking away safely in my cubicle. 

But Jason Pierce of Spiritualized knows a thing or two about death. The guy gets not single, but double pneumonia in 2005 and spends copious amounts of time grasping at the strings of life in the accident-and-emergency ward (hence the A and the E in the title), and all I get is this lousy album?

Okay, all joking aside, Pierce was halfway finished with A&E before his brush with the reaper, but the effect on the album is nevertheless as ever-present as mortality itself: "Death Take Your Fiddle" shoves the subject right to the forefront, layering the samples of labored and mechanized breathing over Pierce's deal with the devil: "So death take your fiddle / Play a song for me / Play a song we used to sing / The one that brought you close to me / Play a song and I will sing along."

Pierce's observations and mangy cast of characters are linked together by 6 different Harmonies - instrumental interludes interspersed throughout the album, so called for the work Pierce was doing for Harmony Korin's film Mr. Lonely. Here they act as a bridge spanning the deep chasm of the subject matter; a thread uniting not only the various sounds on the album but also the themes and ideas. 

When Spiritualized does take on proper verse-chorus-verse form, the observations here are delivered in Pierce's raspy drawl, but the gauzy melodies he wraps his vocals in vary from boot-stompin' country to lovelorn ballads to tortured ruminations on death and dying. Plaintive hymns and unnerving confessions abound here, with the kind of tension both loaded subjects rightly deserve. 

Though many of the songs are packed with lush instrumentation, none of it feels over-embellished, as even the most celestial flourishes still recede long enough to allow Pierce's lyrics to scrape at the subconscious and reveal themselves in their full profundity upon subsequent listens. And profound, they are; Pierce hovers around three main subjects, those being death, spirituality, and love. It's the Big 3, really. God, Death, and Love. A guy can't write an entire album (and some would argue, an entire career) based on The Big 3 and not come up with some semblance of profundity. 

"I gotta fire inside my soul / Let it burn and let it grow," Pierce wails on "I Gotta Fire," a driving, defiant battle cry amidst gales of jazzy brass. This song transitions into the celebratory choral chant, "Soul on Fire" where Pierce again reminds us: "I got a hurricane inside my veins / And I want to stay forever." The third in a triplet of songs with the word "Fire" in the title is "Sitting On Fire," where Pierce confesses, "When we're together the fire burns bright, but the old flame ignites when we part." In each of these cases, Pierce breathes fresh perspective into similar subject matter with these songs--confidently placing them side by side on the album--that when taken as a whole, are each unique enough to stand on their own, but mesh beautifully when played together. 

It's precisely the separate-but-togetherness of Songs in A & E that works so beautifully on the album. Taken apart, the songs each stand on their own to deliver Pierce's message, but taken as a whole, the album delivers a lush, haunting meditation of life and death and lingers in the mind long after the final track is done. 

Summer is turning out to be a formidable time in terms of new music; two of my favorite albums so far in 2008 have dropped within a month of each other (Nat Baldwin's excellent Most Valuable Player being the other). You can bet I'm looking forward to the ass-kicking lineup of Nick Cave, Cat Power, and Spiritualized this September. 

Buy Songs in A&E  here.

Both images courtesy of Post-Rockist.com