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As the members of the long-gone but beloved English drone-rock outfit Spacemen 3 have floated off to do their separate things, it’s become increasingly clear that taking drugs to make music to take drugs to takes its toll on intraband relationships. Founding member Jason Pierce couldn’t even wait until the band had properly broken up to start doing his own thing with Spiritualized. After that, it wasn’t long until Pierce’s old songwriting partner, Sonic Boom, started doing his own thing in Spectrumor, for that matter, until ex-Spacemen guitarist Mark Refoy left Spiritualized to form Slipstream and do his own thing, too.
Of course, “doing his own thing” in these cases really means taking more drugs to make music to take more drugs toand to uphold the old Spacemen 3 tradition of giving that music a pretty strong religious undercurrent. I mean, look at those band names again. And how about the titles of these guys’ latest albums? Amazing Grace? Transcendental? They read suspiciously like the track list of a Van Morrison album. Are Pierce and Refoy suggesting that dope and/or their particular form of hypno-rock is a religious experience? Or are they really up to something, well, spiritualized?
In Pierce’s case, at least, I’m sure it’s bothbut I’m more interested in the latter. Oh, Pierce is no holy manas a matter of fact, some of his songs would lead you to believe that he’s a dope fiend whose only desire is to go out in a blaze of junk-filled glory. But as 2001’s wrenching Let It Come Down made clear, he’s no mere hedonist, either. Rather, he’s a man in spiritual torment, a soul torn between the artificial paradise of drug addiction and the possibility of finding some purer home in the heavens. What’s more, Pierce is just honest enough to show us both sides of himself in his music. And this usually makes his albums interesting in a way that few records are in our day and age.
Appropriately, Amazing Gracewhich is being touted as a “garage album” for the fact that it took weeks, rather than Let It Come Down’s years, to finishopens rather philosophically, with a track called “This Little Life of Mine.” Over squalls of guitar feedback and some bare-knuckled “I Wanna Be Your Dog”-esque keyboards, Pierce announces his intention to burn down his own life because he’s “sick of trying,” and I’ll be damned if this chaotic number doesn’t make the act of self-immolation sound almost attractive. Thematically, it’s not too different from the last album’s opener, “On Fire,” which suggested that Pierce was “alive with no one but myself to blame.” Musically, however, the track is something else entirely: Rather than gospel-tinged grandeur, we get finger-in-the-air rock ‘n’ roll of the most elemental variety.
“Cheapster,” “Never Goin’ Back,” and “She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)” (perhaps the best sex = drugs formulation since the Gun Club’s “She’s Like Heroin to Me”) all follow suit, variously recombining Amazing Grace’s pervasive Stooges influence with bits of Uriah Heep and Bob Dylan. But the album’s moments of defiance are tempered by others of solemn surrender. Pierce eulogizes a dead friend in “The Ballad of Richie Lee,” which opens with a Sparklehorse-like organ vamp before metamorphosing into a slow intergalactic blues about yearning for some shared oblivion: “Put your hand in my hand/And maybe we’ll forget.” That idea shows up again in the misleadingly titled “Rated X”though this time the track devolves into an ethereal jazz odyssey that floats us into outer space even as it fails to cut the cord of memory that tethers Pierce to a painful past.
One thing I love about Pierce is that, whenever he begins to sound obsessed with his own burden of suffering, he stops to help you with your own. “If you’ve got pain in your heart/Why don’t you share it with me/And we’ll just wait and see/If it’s half of what it used to be,” he sings on “Lay It Down Slow,” which shows up with only a sparse keyboard but sprouts choir and strings as it grows up. “Hold On,” by contrast, opens like a deranged, overloaded version of “Auld Lang Syne” but soon turns lullaby-like, offering the simplest get-through-this advice of the disc: “You gotta hold on, baby, to those you hold dear/Hang on to the people you love.”
But the album’s bittersweet centerpiece is “Lord Let It Rain on Me,” in which Pierce pleads for something finalwhether it be death or redemptionbecause “Now I know I’m going down/I’ve got a little knowledge, Lord/I’m about ready now.” The song is a bundle of contradictions: a gospel-fueled attack on Christianity that doubles back on itself to become a prayerto nothing and no one, perhaps, but a prayer nonetheless: “Lord, let it rain on me/…I’m about ready now.” And what could be more human than a prayer flung up in desperation to the uncaring stars? Pierce may suffer the same delusions as every junkie, fetishizing his own suffering. But in the end his struggles are our struggles: We can’t go on; we go on. It’s the same no matter what we put our faith in: dope, Jesus, or even Spiritualized records.
After the dark meditations of Amazing Grace, it’s a relief to step into the light of Transcendental, on which Refoy plays Henry David Thoreau to Pierce’s Jonathan Edwards. But if Slipstream makes for a happier listening experience, it’s one that’s not nearly as soul-satisfying. Refoy has stayed closer to Spacemen 3’s signature style: The guitars spin lazy, looping circles, and many a shoe is gazed uponwhich would be all well and good if it weren’t for Refoy’s tendency to ape Ye Olde Psychedelic Sounds of Yore as if they were going out of style. Whereas Messrs. Pierce and Boom created honest-to-God modern psychedelia, Refoy is nothing but a retro addict. And if you think being a junkie is bad, try being a retro addict. The world doesn’t even acknowledge it as a disease.
“I wish I could feel everything,” sings Refoy on opener “Everything and Anything (Fully Remastered),” sounding irked that he missed the Yellow Submarine, while behind him his mates pretend to be attired like Herman’s Hermits. But that’s not nearly as silly as “Clare’s Ghost,” which will appeal to anyone who ever thought that portentous poem at the beginning of the Moody Blues’ “Tuesday Afternoon” was the high-water mark of rock “culture.” Behind some musical bluster meant to suggest what the English still term “the gloaming,” a graphic-novel bloke named Alan Moore “narrates” a poem by some other literary bloke named Edmund Blunden. Poor, poor Blunden. Why, I haven’t heard such pretentious folderol since Spi¬nal Tap’s “Stonehenge,” which had the great advantage of being a joke.
Most of the rest of the album dispenses with such mannerisms and just, well, flows transcendentally, distracting us from our pain and making for some blissful dreams, if not much else. The too-brief “Healing Hands” evokes vintage Luna, “Tonight’s the Night” sounds like a particularly tasty cut by the Jesus and Mary Chain, and “Midnight Train (Harmonica Mix)” is, as its title implies, a six-and-a-half-minute ride across the dark countryside, complete with some stick work meant to suggest the clickety-clack of the titular locomotive’s wheels. “Lost in Space” is a long ‘un, too, but it actually justifies its eight-plus-minute length with a few neato synth squiggles, some cool distorted vocals, and a great dumb chorus: “And when I see your face/That’s when I’m lost in space.” Not to mention some marvelous interstellar guitar work that’s guaranteed to, like, give you glimpses of other galaxies.
Well, not really. Really you won’t see anything except what’s sitting right there in front of you. But you get the idea. CP