It's been a while, but finally J. Spaceman is back with a new record. And what a different sort of record this is. Amazing Grace, the previous Spiritualized outing, was huge affair complete with dozens of musicians, a chorus and a massive, dense sound. Here, Spiritualized is stripped down to just Mr. Spaceman and a few accompanying musicians. While that previous record created a spacious sound, this record is sparse, almost minimalistic. Oh sure, a few of the tunes swell to epic proportions, but just a few. This is a positively restrained record for Mr. Spaceman!
Much has been made about Spaceman's near death experience a few years back. Apparently he had pneumonia really bad, and had to be hospitalized in order to survive. I am sure that this had some effect on him, and this record seems all the more personal because of it, as well as being darker. This is not exactly a happy record. Spaceman's usual themes of God/Jesus and drug use (blended with a love of guns in a way that i can't quite figure out) are here intermingled with the concept of "being on fire". Fire is this albums analogy for both drugs and God, and, i think, pain. I find it interesting that near death brought him to this comparison. It's obvious when you think about it -- isn't Jehovah a Sky/Sun God anyway, and thus lord over fire?
Complicated thematic content aside (and i figure people will be writing dissertations about his work at some point in the future), the songs here are brilliant. While J. Spaceman has never released a record that i have not enjoyed, i now place Songs in A & E firmly in second place on my list of favorites, right after Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space.
On this record, Spaceman does something interesting with the spacing of the tunes. The songs are interspersed with short instrumental interludes called "Harmony", each having a number and a parenthetical notation of what sort of instrument was used, such as "Glockenspiel" or "The Old Man". These make a break in the album whenever the songs get too heavy, and seem to serve to break the album into discrete sections.
At any rate, there is about 51 minutes of music here. Let me go over the tunes.
The first song proper on the album is Sweet Talk, which is an epic soul number. A chorus oohs behind him, as Spaceman leads the band into a huge swirl of sound. This is catchy and epic -- he does this style so well, better, actually, than anyone else since Curtis Mayfield died! A lovely start to the disc.
However, after that glorious high note, Spaceman takes it down a notch with Death Take Your Fiddle, a slow aching ballad of voice stripped of all effects, naked and almost sounding painful. This is accompanied by a looped sample of some deep wheezing (the press blurb on Amazon indicates this is the sound of an artificial lung), making this song seem almost a direct response to his near-death. "Death, take your fiddle / And play a song for me," his voice moans. It's chilling, yet beautiful at the same time. Spaceman has always been interested in American music, and while before he played with gospel, this is the blues in its purest form. Notes are torn from the guitar and twisted out of his voice in a painful process. Yet the result is something really stunning. Seriously, words don't do this justice -- you need to hear it for yourself.
And then we get into the fire section of the records, with I Gotta Fire, a distorted, bluesy rocker, and Soul On Fire, another gospel tune with a huge sound. After a brief interlude (Harmony 2 (piano)), we continue with Sitting on Fire. This is a slow, melancholy song. "It's hard to fight when you're losing," he sings, sounding weary. It's a nice song, but heavy.
Too heavy, and Spaceman knows it, so he gives us two rockers next: Yeah Yeah and You Lie You Cheat. These build with strong rhythms, and You Lie You Cheat takes the gospel template that he works with and layers intense distortion on the guitar and keyboards. Itís a powerful song, and really tears along.
Another harmony interlude, and then Spaceman gives us a happy pop song called Baby I'm Just A Fool. Acoustic guitars strum and a marimba chimes. It's a happy song, with a happy melody and a nice pace.
A sad song comes next, the ballad Don't Hold Me Close, where an uncredited female voice echoes Spaceman's slowly sung vocals over ponderous rhythm and droning organ. Another chilling tune. And the down moment does not let up: after another harmony, we have The Waves Crash In, a slow tune with strings backing Spaceman's mournful voice. It's a lovely tune, but not an upbeat number.
In order to keep the heaviness from getting too intense, Spaceman gives us another harmony interlude, then we get the rocking Borrowed Your Gun, which despite building to a decent frenzy, starts slowly and sadly. I don't quite get Spaceman's obsession with firearms, but here it certainly is not a good thing.
One more harmony interlude and the album ends with the long Goodnight Goodnight. This moves at a lullaby's pace and mostly is just Spaceman's voice and slow acoustic guitar. Eventually it includes some mournful strings, but that's it really. The record sort of just fades out slowly that way.
When i go back and listen to it, i realize that it is not the saddest record, but all of the slow, depressing songs are clustered at the end of the record, so it leaves that impression with the listener. Still, it says something for Spaceman's ability to invoke mood that i get such a visceral impression of the record from those last few songs.
Overall, this is an excellent album. I cannot recommend it enough, and it might very well be my favorite of this year. Another win for J. Spaceman. I just hope that i donít have to wait another five years for another record. Then again, if i have to wait for this level of quality, i think i am willing to do so.