Spiritualized mastermind Jason Pierce says he’d already written the material on Songs in A&E when he was hospitalized in 2005 with a serious case of double pneumonia. (How serious? “At one point I just thought that this was it,” Pierce’s pal and collaborator John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack told England’s Observer last year. “I was pretty sure he was going to die.”) In spite of that timeline, it’s nearly impossible to hear A&E—whose title refers to the British equivalent of an American hospital’s ER—as anything other than a recovery record. “Hold out your hands, I’m coming home,” Pierce tells a father figure in “Borrowed Your Gun,” while trumpets summon him toward the light. In “Death Take Your Fiddle,” he addresses the Grim Reaper over a spooky goth-soul groove that derives its slo-mo pulse from the sound of a man breathing on a respirator: “Play a song you used to sing, the one that brought you close to me/Play a song and I will sing along.”
Then again, recovery (and its elusiveness) is what every Spiritualized record is about. Pierce’s pilot narrative is his quest for redemption—from addiction, from heartbreak, from a lack of faith in something bigger than himself. (In the realm of English pop stars, he’s the Anti-Winehouse: This dude can’t wait for somebody to try to make him go to rehab.) So maybe it’s not so hard to believe Pierce’s claim about the album’s provenance; he probably just figured he’d have a need for some deathbed space-blues sooner or later.
The followup to 2003’s garage-punk Amazing Grace, A&E for sure bears the mark of Spiritualized’s recent Acoustic Mainlines gigs, which found Pierce accompanied by a string section and a gospel chorus: There are big arrangements here, but they’re much more modest in scale than those on 2001’s hilariously grandiose Let It Come Down. The result ebbs and flows: “Soul on Fire” is a glorious acid-Motown production number with soaring movie-score strings, and it’s extremely unlikely that anything on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s eventual reunion record will improve upon “You Lie You Cheat,” which builds to a furious free-noise climax. But the album’s second half bogs down in the sort of orchestral treacle we wouldn’t tolerate if it came from someone less credentialed than Pierce. Or, I suppose, if he hadn’t just cheated death.
Spiritualized play Terminal 5 July 27, terminal5nyc.com