The Guide to Getting Into Spiritualized

The man known most colorfully as J. Spaceman has spent the better part of three decades tackling life's big questions with grand songs that feel gilded with precious metals. Here's where to start.

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Sep 6 2018, 3:17pm

Jason Pierce has never been interested in easy questions. Over two and a half decades as the star at the center of the entropically expanding constellation known as Spiritualized, he’s made vast, cosmos scraping rock songs concerned with life’s big unanswerables. The now 52-year-old songwriter has made songs both in marathon and miniature lengths about the fragility of existence, man’s smallness in the face of infinity, the various forms of ecstasy, religion, desire, addiction—as well as the blurry ways all of those ideas intersect. He inflates small dramas to these cosmic proportions as well, one of the best Spiritualized songs is this looping, masterpiece about the meditative power sitting around and doing nothing, contemplating your place amid the overload of post-millenial life.

Spiritualized originally formed from the ashes of Spacemen 3, a similarly psychedelically minded outfit Pierce co-founded when he was still a teen in the early 80s, before eventually burning out in 1992. That band’s focus was marginally more rock and therefore more myopic—he recently talked about the music young people make as “full of the folly and stupidity and arrogance of youth”—it wasn’t until he started Spiritualized that he truly turned his eyes to the sky. In the two and a half decades since he’s made nothing short of epics—famously utilizing over 100 backing musicians on one of the band’s peak-era records —echoing a composerly impulse to reflect the grandeur of the universe in his songs.

Like much pious art from across the millenia, the man occasionally known as J. Spaceman songs have this feeling of being gilded in precious metals, in an attempt to underscore their remarkable ambition. But where others take easy outs, finding self-assurement in spiritual devotion, part of what’s made Pierce’s songs great is how content he is to embrace the not-knowing. He stares at the void and divines no answers, but expresses wonder where he finds it, and even peace when he can. After 26 years, eight albums, and one very near brush with death, he’s certainly earned it.

Psychedelic Gospel Spiritualized

Pierce’s existential meanderings under the Spiritualized banners have expressed solitary viewpoints, he’s often used communal forms to communicate that loneliness. One of his favorite tools is drawing on the history of gospel music, using massive choirs to sing vibrant harmonies. That specific trick goes as far back as Spiritualized’s breakout album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (which enlisted the London Community Gospel Choir for backing vocals) or really even farther if you’re willing to count Spacemen 3’s “Walkin’ With Jesus” (originally from that band’s The Perfect Prescription, but which Pierce’s newer project has often played live and included on their live record Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997) as part of the Spiritualized canon. But this influence stretches throughout Pierce’s catalog in ways both textual and musical. See even the multitracked harmonies of Sweet Heart Sweet Light’s “Headin’ for the Top Now” for evidence of such spiritual influence. But he also, often, specifically cries out to a creator, seeking forgiveness or guidance, or at least using such pantomimed piety to attempt to compress a complicated world into manichean simplicity.

Pierce once told Pitchfork that while he’s “never been and will never be religious, as soon as you have a conversation about Jesus, you know what you're talking to him about: how it is to be fallible and question yourself and your morals.” That explanation shows just why this stuff is so great, he elevates mundane concerns to grand struggles between divine good and evil. And yes, as you might expect, we’re all damned.

Playlist: “Lay It Down Slow” / “Medication” / “Little Girl” / “Walking With Jesus” / “Headin’ For the Top Now” / “So Long You Pretty Thing” / “Lord Let It Rain on Me” / “The Straight and the Narrow”

Cosmic Wonder Spiritualized

But even so, argues another side of Spiritualized’s catalog, we might as well appreciate the glory of this strange place while we’re here. There’s a reason the man is called Spaceman and regularly appears in an astronaut suit, one of his strong convictions seems to be exploring the majesty and wonder of the world around him—and reflecting that with lushly realized songs. That’s perhaps most evident on Ladies and Gentlemen—and even more particularly its title track—on which Pierce took his most outré approach to production, utilizing loops and sampling to twist his vibrant collection of expensive string sounds and multitudes of voices into universes all their own. He sings of the power of love to change a life, or of finding bliss when heaven seems out of reach. There’s this sense of interstellar astonishment and immense peace that runs through a strain of their catalog, all the way up through the song they literally made with recordings of deep space radiation that goes, in part: “If you want another world / I would be another world for you. If you want universe, I will be a universe for you.”

Playlist: "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (I Can't Help Falling in Love)" / “Life Is a Problem” / “Soul on Fire” / “Always Forgetting With You” / “Born Never Asked” / “I Think I’m in Love”

Mutant Blues Spiritualized

Occasionally, Spiritualized makes more earthbound music too. When dealing with the more bodily aspects of Pierce’s thematic concerns—chemical highs, grief, and death—they often turn to a version of a style that’s long dealt with such sounds: blues. When describing his affection for a 90s record by blues guitarist Junior Kimbrough, Pierce once colorfully compared the fetish for newness in music to a desire to “invent a new animal.” That being an impossibility, he’s been content to turn to older forms and tweak them slightly to create a timeless sort of blues that spans both nations and eras. Songs like Ladies and Gentlemen’s “Electricity” apply layers of distortion and bleary singing to give a dizzy jolt to his influences. Even when he’s explicitly invoking his forebears, on tracks like “These Blues” and “Cheapster,” he’ll bring in some of his spacier impulses to avoid following in the dodgy tradition of white UK bluesmen before him (it should come as no surprise that he’s not really a big fan of Eric Clapton).

Playlist: “Come Together” / “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go” / “Electricity” / “I Gotta Fire” / “She Kissed Me (And It Felt Like a Hit)” / “These Blues” / “I’m Your Man" / "Cheapster"

Fragile Ballad Spiritualized

Some of Pierce’s best songs are incredibly simple, shirking the compositional and instrumental flourishes he often favors—or at least pushing them to the background—so that his bleary-eyed songwriting can take center stage. He’s a master of these sorts of fragile emotional moments that dot the interstellar bliss of his records. (It is no accident that he told us recently that he’s perhaps made “a lifetime of last tracks.”) They feel crafted as reminders that at the core of all these big problems he’s turning over, and the grand way in which he searches for answers, there’s a person there who sometimes feels broken, or lonely, or in love, or otherwise.

There’s two broken-down songs with similar titles—”All of My Thoughts” from Ladies and Gentlemen and “All of My Tears”—that are most indicative of this mode, just pure, quiet, but full-bodied emoting. Some songwriters make whole careers out of just these moments—the stripped-down, emotionally raw ballads—but they fit interestingly in the context of the broader project of Spiritualized: in consideration of the infinite there is of course room for the intimate. Do lost loves and emotional pain matter in the context of the whole universe? Pierce seems to argue that these things mean both everything and nothing, perhaps at the same time.

Playlist: “A Perfect Miracle” / “Anyway That You Want Me” / “All of My Thoughts” / “All of My Tears” / “Don’t Just Do Something” / “I Didn’t Mean to Hurt You” / “Let It Flow”

Unrepentantly Epic Spiritualized

It is my firm opinion that the best way to experience Spiritualized is at marathon length. Most of their albums bleed over the hour mark, and each time I’ve seen them play they’ve stretched toward double that (if not longer), which gives them so much room to illustrate the complexity and many joys of their project. Obviously there are durational projects—both from giddy jam bands and morose experimenters—that stretch much longer than that, but Pierce has always made a point to use his time wisely, packing each moment full of granular detail. Which is why I leave you with this, a short list of a few of the great longer songs in Spiritualized’s catalog, each of which demonstrates—in 17 minutes or less, a few of the different sides of Spiritualized, from “Cop Shoot Cop”’s narcotic spirituality to “Hey Jane”’s nervy emoting and existential dissatisfaction. Each contains multitudes and offers the same to you, should you choose it. Start with one, but you’ll be back. There’s whole universes to explore.

Playlist: “Won’t Get to Heaven (The State I’m In)” / “Cop Shoot Cop” / “Baby I’m Just a Fool” / “Shine a Light” / “Hey Jane”