The first Spiritualized record since frontman Jason Pierce's nearly fatal bout with double pneumonia, Songs in A&E is what you might expect—a heavyhearted, acid-gospel epic about death and all his proverbial friends. The only problem is, Pierce actually wrote these songs before he fell ill.
"Yeah, people have asked me, 'Do you think this record was cursed? Did you prophesize your own illness?' " Pierce says, chuckling a bit. "But you can make anything fit in hindsight. You could also say I'm really glad I put my left shoe on before my right so I didn't get hit by that train today."
In fairness, it's easy to see how A&E tracks like "Death Take Your Fiddle" could sound eerily prophetic at first. But, as Pierce acknowledges, you could find the same sort of parallels with dozens of songs from Spiritualized's 15-year-old catalog. Even back to his days in seminal '80s drone band Spacemen 3, Pierce's preference for certain lyrical themes has been consistent—death, drugs and religion high among them.
"I've always been interested in the big questions," he says. "The ideas that make the difference when I'm writing or recording are the ones that ask those kind of questions."
In that respect, Songs in A&E (British shorthand for "Accidents and Emergencies") isn't a huge departure, let alone a soundtrack to a near-death experience. But it was a colossal challenge for Pierce to complete. Even after recovering from his illness in 2005, the 43-year-old wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to successfully revisit the material he'd recorded for the sixth Spiritualized album. The turning point came when Pierce was asked to develop the score for indie director (and Nashville resident) Harmony Korine's latest film, Mister Lonely.
"Before I got involved with Harmony, I was lost—completely lost," Pierce says. "I had no idea how to finish these 11 or 12 tracks I had. But as soon as Harmony put me in the studio making music, it changed everything."
Six of the instrumental pieces Pierce wrote for Mister Lonely would turn into A&E's aptly titled "Harmony" tracks—transitional nuggets which Pierce credits for breathing new life into the nearly abandoned album. "Just working with Harmony in general—it was liberating. His mind is spinning and spinning, and he's taking stuff out and throwing stuff in. It brought that kind of energy to my life, that drive to kind of go with it and see what happens."
Inspired anew, Pierce finally put the finishing touches on Songs in A&E, which was released to wide acclaim in May. Like the past two Spiritualized efforts, this one is wide in scope but more organic than the U.K. band's feedback-heavy early work. Take the seven-minute "Baby I'm Just a Fool," which uses a marimba, strings and horns to turn a simple two-chord acoustic strum into a hypnotic anthem. There's a similar minimalism to lead single "Soul on Fire" (one of three tracks with the word "fire" in it), which swells into a typically bombastic Spiritualized chorus not too dissimilar from back-catalog gems such as "Cool Waves" and "Stop Your Crying." All in all, Songs in A&E finds Pierce still ruling the strange territory where psychedelia, shoegaze and the blues meet Brit-pop and church music. And while he's managed a handful of hit singles from that equation, it's the long-playing album format that has always served him best, even in an i-Tunes world.
"For better or worse, that's what I do," he says. "I make albums. I make these little time capsules where all the songs are interrelated, and where the themes in one may be explored again in another. So, you know, when I hear that people have short attention spans these days, I have to say, well, how fucking short? Do they just want the first two bars of the song? Do they just want the chorus? You know, you can buy a postcard that shows the detail of the Sistine Chapel with the two fingers of God and man touching. And it's a really beautiful image, but you can't deny that it comes from a much bigger picture—something greater and more beautiful."
As has become the norm, Pierce has employed a small army of musicians to help re-create that beauty onstage this year, including a few eyebrow-raising gigs in Finland opening for Lenny Kravitz. Wait, Lenny Kravitz?
"When you can stand in front of 17,000 people who've never heard of you and still have fun, it makes you stronger," Pierce explains. "Putting music under stress can really make it phenomenal. And the people actually got off on it—you know, those that weren't in shock."
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