Jason Pierce has this clever go-to riff when faced with the suggestion that his lyrics are overwhelmingly autobiographical. It’s certainly not a stretch to come to such assumptions over a canon so mired in self-destruction and dripping with narcotica.

“I say in every interview that when you listen to Ray Charles singing, ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ there isn’t a single person to who listens to that and says, ‘who is it that Ray can’t stop loving?’ It’s about you, and how you relate to love.”

He has this guitar, a 1929 Gibson that he bought in Cincinnati a handful of years ago, and is of the firm belief that the songs that would later populate the powerfully raw new Spiritualized album, Songs in A&E, came with the guitar. Surely they must have, you see, because Pierce doesn’t fancy himself to be a guitar player until he plugs one in onstage.

But yet, some four years ago, the man known worldwide as J. Spaceman, or rather “the Spaceman,” found himself writing the majority of the songs for A&E on acoustic guitar for the first time in his career. The songs came quickly, and the “the initial record was put together in a couple of weeks,” a striking comparison to Spiritualized’s earlier records, that took a matter of years to compose.

“I was going to try to write a record that was about fictional characters, that wasn’t about me, and wasn’t based around me. So hopefully that would create something new, in the way that Brian Wilson’s stuff seems to be about characters,” Pierce says, remembering his original mission, before double pneumonia left him hospitalized for weeks in the intensive care unit of Royal London Hospital in 2005.

Many of Spiritualized’s devoted listeners will likely interpret Songs in A&E as an excruciating journey into Pierce’s struggle to survive to the tune of blips and bloops of hospital gear, and the Spaceman concedes that the record has now become “more deeply personal, that it well just might have started with me as a central point.” So much for Ray Charles.

It was in 2006 after a triumphant acoustic performance at a Daniel Johnston tribute concert in London that Pierce was approached by oddball American film auteur Harmony Korine — famous for penning the ultra-controversial 1995 indie film Kids, and helming his equally as disturbing debut feature, Gummo — to score the director’s new film Mister Lonely, a charming tale of a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who falls for a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). Pierce credits Korine with giving him the “confidence and strength” to get back into the studio to make music again.

“He’s probably about the craziest person I’ve ever met. [His films] are beautiful, and they’re constantly challenging. The enormity of what he was dealing with made my album seem tiny. Here’s this crazy, crazy guy who’s gonna make a movie, and here’s me, and I’ve got 11 songs. I write 11 songs every four years! How difficult is that?! So, he put that whole thing into perspective for me,” Pierce says.

With Korine’s project as a much-needed creative outlet, Pierce found the lack of pressure normally associated with the recording process, and the freedom to just go where the day takes you to be a wonderful way to ease back into Songs in A&E, which had been effectively abandoned for nearly two years.

“He put me in the studio where I was working on music and sounds, not something I had to front. It’s not going to carry the movie, it’s just the underscore. It’s hugely liberating to be in that position. I’d sit on a piano for half a day and write some pieces, and it suddenly became very productive, in a way that it didn’t matter if it was for the film, or rejected for the film, or nothing to do with the film. So, I started working on the album in parallel to that, and they both bled into each other, and there are bits of the album in the movie and bits of the movie in the album. It just kind of fit,” Pierce says.

The film’s score and Korine did find their way onto Songs in A&E, by way of five “Harmony’ tracks interspersed through the record. Pierce roundly considers these brief pieces of atmosphere to be “integral” to the spirit of the record, along with his experience with improvisational musicians in England that lead to a greater appreciation of a more traditional way of working in the studio. A newly-instated classic approach to recording would wholly shape the new record, and do away with his heavy-footed tendencies.

It is indeed his trademark techniques that have arguably kept his ardent fanbase with him since the days of Spaceman 3 in the 80’s; the Spectorian grandness of his manic, prodigious noise, that infamous soul-shaking assault on the senses. Taking the leap to make a quieter, more simplistic record with visceral, intricate songs delivered in a naked, craggy voice, and embracing song structures that have more in common with standards than Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space gave Pierce the freedom to turn down the reverb and even write a “pop song.”

“This record found its own space without having to apply studio techniques. I think the record’s got this kind of low-level energy like you get in a hospital. That kind of something really fucking important is happening here, but you only feel it in the calm of the building. I’m not saying the record’s got something really fucking important, but it’s got that sense of…and I think that’s where its natural place was. And it arrived there with no studio effects,” Pierce says.

The lead single off Songs in A&E is “Soul on Fire,” an accessible, sweeping love song that feels warm, and not self-medicated warm. The kind of obvious, genuine warmth that isn’t necessarily associated with Spiritualized and this suits Pierce just fine. It is also just one of three songs on the record with “fire” in its title.

“It’s me playing around saying, ‘I don’t want ‘Soul on Fire’ on this record, it’s a pop song! What am I doing? Why would I want to write a song like that?’ I was also saying, ‘Come on, Jase, surely you can rewrite one of these so that it doesn’t have ‘fire,’ not in the song, but in the fucking title!’ And then not only that, but they wind up right next to each other, and they’re not even spaced out. Maybe if I had spaced them out a little, people won’t notice, but it’s just ‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’ I didn’t even try to hide it, because it didn’t work anywhere else,” Pierce says.

The single is deceptive, however, because Songs in A&E has its harrowing moments that do connect to Spiritualized’s previous albums in spirit, and when seen in the broader context of the album’s journey, stands all the body’s hairs on end as the best storytelling should. “Death Take Your Fiddle” is augmented with what sounds like a hospital ventilator, but was created using the bellows of an accordion for effect. Another standout track that appears towards the end of the record, “The Waves Crash In,” has a similarly arresting DNA that also set the album’s overall tone and scope.

“[It] was originally called ‘The Old Man Says Goodbye to His Daughter at the Gate,’ and they were two of the characters in this fictional family group, if you like. It was about an old man full of pride and sadness that his beloved daughter was leaving, because that’s what happens in life. ‘Borrowed Your Gun’ has that sort of thing as well; there’s a sort of lineage that goes through things. With ‘The Waves Crash In,’ the lines at the end are the daughter’s lines [where] she’s saying, ‘I know you think I’m staggering, but I really am staggering…’ with both senses of the word. And that was the line,” Pierce remembers.

At present, there are no plans for Pierce to write an album based extensively on his illness and subsequent recovery, or the effect the experience had on him, but remains open to resolving that perhaps the serendipitous way his initial intention for the album bled into his journey to completing the album, did ultimately explore and conquer the topic. Lingering thoughts on mortality, however, as addressed in “Fiddle” and “Gun,” will continue to be an overwhelming influence on the Spaceman, and that alone should please the fickle fans that might balk at the album’s ranking in Spiritualized’s hallowed catalog.

“’Death Take Your Fiddle’ alone now sounds like this close brush with death, and it made real sense to because when I wrote that song, it was written with a sense of pride. It sounds like a weird line, but I kind of know what I’m trying to say, that life almost isn’t worth living unless death is close, unless death is around. It makes sense that all of it, this kind of world…I don’t mind exploring those places; I don’t mind putting myself where you can be friend with death. You don’t want to be too close now, but this idea that it all makes sense. Not with any kind of fear. What’s that all about? Help! [laughs]”


–Carrie Alison

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