I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
Jason Pierce, aka J Spaceman, guitarist, singer, and leader of Spiritualized, is a complex dude. He’s got a long history with drug abuse, and a fairly public one at that. His and his fellow bandmates’ heroin addiction was widely known throughout the duration of Pierce’s earlier band, Spacemen 3, as albums and songs like Perfect Prescription, Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, and “Take Me to the Other Side” attest. Spacemen 3, a Velvets + shoegaze stoner hybrid, eventually and inevitably splintered, and Pierce formed Spiritualized in its wake. After two albums of heaving, zoned-out feedback- and fuzz-soaked psychedelia, the group, after several lineup changes, expanded from the core rock instruments (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards) to include gospel choirs, strings, jazz ensembles, Dr. John – all in order to make the biggest and loudest statement of Pierce’s career, the staggering masterpiece Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space (1998). The band minimized the shoegaze in favor of maximum composition, instruments and sounds crammed layer upon layer into the mix, and the result was glorious, a classic record deftly woven together from start to finish. The record is so skilfully and organically arranged that it breathes as it progresses, songs and themes blend into each other as the listener is guided from one exquisite suite to the next. It is Jason Pierce’s masterwork, a massive undertaking so successfully executed that it completely elevates Pierce into the pantheon of Great Rock Composers.
Trying to harness lightning twice, the follow-up, Let It Come Down (2001), was weighty and overwrought, and the production was fraught with difficulties. Two years later, Pierce, the only constant member of the band at this point, decided to take a fresh approach to his songwriting: he stripped away the layers of sound in order to get back to basics and intentionally make a rock record. Amazing Grace hit record stores in 2003, and met with mild critical acclaim, but nothing close to the buzz generated by Ladies and Gentlemen. But maybe that’s selling the record too short – there’s really no way for Pierce to top his own perfection. And while Amazing Grace pales in comparison to Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s a completely different animal, and should be viewed as such. And yes, it may seem that Amazing Grace is merely a collection of songs when compared, but there is a thread, albeit not a sonic one, that ties the whole thing together and once again illuminates the songwriter’s delicately balanced physical and mental well being. (Even though, protective of his own myth, Jason Pierce refuses to discuss drug use in depth in interviews – one can come to the conclusion that he’s not always honest about his personal life.)
Pierce does prove himself a deft songwriter with Amazing Grace, continuing to draw from and incorporate a number of styles including rock, blues, jazz, gospel, prog, and psychedelic. And of course, the familiar lyrical themes of addiction and its highs and lows, its effects on the people around the addict, and redemption framed against a backdrop of religious language pervade, as usual. That’s right: As first mentioned on Ladies and Gentlemen, “Little J” is still “sad and fucked,” and we are introduced to an opening downward spiral “This Little Life of Mine,” a grooving psychedelic guitar jam recalling the song from which that lyric is taken, “Come Together.” Here Pierce defiantly sneers, “This little life of mine / I’m gonna let it slide / I’m gonna let it burn / Cuz I’m getting sick of trying.” Obviously a low point (and this is how you start a record?), and the self-destruction continues into the blazing and cutely titled “She Kissed Me (And It Felt Like a Hit)”: “I gotta fever running in my blood / Don’t care if I’m misunderstood / Gonna shoot it up and take my high / Got a feeling it ain’t gonna die / Gonna fuck it up and mess around / I gotta feeling it ain’t coming down.” There’s a laser focus here, and the drugs are the absolute goal, the feening junkie doesn’t care who or what gets in their way as long as the fix comes quick.
This opening duet of songs really illustrates the difference in sound that Pierce is going for with this record as well – the two songs truly emulate arguably the two most “rocking” moments from Ladies and Gentlemen, the aforementioned “Come Together” and “Electricity.” It should be no surprise that those two songs were also the first two singles from that album, and it seems like the band was trying to capture some sort of commercial success by leading off Amazing Grace in this fashion, as well as to announce their intended departure from overproduced symphonic music. It works – both songs are catchy and brief, and yet still retain the core Spiritualized sound. I must admit though, it’s odd hearing moments like this so front and center as a statement of purpose – whereas “Come Together” came second on Ladies and Gentlemen following the gorgeous title track which emulated Pachelbel’s Canon in D, “Electricity” was a mid-album revelation, surrounded by floating psychedelia, gospel excursions, and lengthy instrumental passages, accentuating its clarity in the midst of the haze. It was a cold splash of water to the face, and as such arguably packed more punch than its Amazing Grace counterpart. But again, the intentional focus on simplification and stripping away the layers reminds the listener to not compare the two albums too closely.
We’re hit with the first dose of reality on “Hold On,” the first faux hymn on the record. Played on acoustic guitar and accentuated at points by harmonica bursts, the narrator warns of the psychic wreckage in a junkie’s wake: “You got to hold on baby / to those you hold dear / and have gone to people you love / cuz death cannot part us / if life already has / hold on to those you hold dear.” This soft verse structure is repeated, and I almost expected the song to end on a church organ, its chord resolution so similar to those you’d hear in a closing meditation. The verse presented here is important, and it is repeated as the last verse – Pierce has obviously damaged and eventually lost relationships due to drug abuse, disappointed that he has parted in life from “those [he] loved dear.” “Oh Baby” follows and continues the warning in similar fashion: “you only get a lifetime to try… / please don’t let chances like this pass you by.”
Pierce is back to defiance though on the very next song, as “Never Goin’ Back” takes the similar attitude of the first two songs on the album and continues down a path of willful self-destruction. “The Power and the Glory” is a seething instrumental that follows, as if the narrator is out of breath or out of words, but the trip is turning bad as a horn ensemble emulates guitar distortion and anger and shame bubble beneath the surface. We return, more quickly this time, to the search for forgiveness – Pierce is now turning to God, and religious imagery, as people have failed him, and he has failed himself. But he’s angry at God, angry at where life has gotten him and pissed that redemption is out of reach even though he’s told it’s promised in Jesus Christ: “Jesus Christ, / Look at what you’ve gone and done / 2,000 years of lookin’ down / The barrel of a gun. / You got the fools believin’ / That there’s something else to gain / Jesus Christ, / When you comin’ down again?” But this is one of the most beautiful songs Pierce has ever written – a gospel choir assists in the chorus, and the song builds to a climax, with Pierce proclaiming “I’m about ready now” to either God or himself, but the sentiment is genuine. He’s still admitting in “The Ballad of Richie Lee” how broken and distraught he is, but it’s in “The Cheapster” that he really rails against the help of organized religious involvement in his salvation from his addiction. Against a carnivalesque sugar rush of big-tent religious revival, Pierce warns against showiness and optimism in the fight to recover: “The further you go up now baby, / the further you can fall.” There’s gotta be something meaningful to back up the recovering junkie, and it sounds like Pierce has been burned by religion and its interference in such a way, as this great line suggests: “Sometimes you kick the devil out but angels smash your face.”
“Rated X” follows with a personal lament, full of regret of past mistakes. But it seems like there’s finally someone in his life that can possibly lead him to his salvation. And he shares his modest hopes with this new person in album closer “Lay It Down Slow,” a gentle plea to the other to allow him to help carry the weight of the past: “If you got pain in your heart / why don’t you share it with me? / And we’ll just wait and see / if it’s half what it used to be. / If you’ve got love in your heart / why don’t you keep it with mine? / I can’t promise a miracle / but I’ll always be trying.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, and as a listener you can’t help but feel relieved that this junkie is reformed to a point that he’s not only able to set aside his past a bit, but he’s also trying to help another reform as well: “Lay it down slow / lay it down free / lay it down easy / but lay it on me.”
So the cycle ends on an upbeat note, appropriately at the end of another hymn-like song – there is a form of salvation, of redemption, in finding help in another person like yourself. But although that’s a romantic and idealistic sentiment, there needs to be more, and we have to hope that there is. The title is therefore appropriate, and although it’s the title of a Christian hymn, we can take its first verse out of context, for Jason Pierce’s sake: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me. / I once was lost, but now am found, / was blind but now I see.” The song cycle of Amazing Grace mirrors this verse, as a “wretch,” addicted to drugs and destroying his and others lives around him, finds help and release. But was this wretch truly saved? Only time will tell.
RIYL: Nuggets, Pink Floyd, Spacemen 3, The Stooges