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Rumor has it that the famously hazed-out leader of the neopsychedelic band Spiritualized has finally kicked the horseand whatever other mind-altering chemicals he’s ingested over the years. This would be a shocker: Pierce’s previous band, Spacemen 3, once boasted that it was “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to.” But with Spacemen 3 long gone and Pierce a new father, talk of the singer-songwriter’s recovery has been rampant. Of course, if these rumors are true, that explains Pierce’s recent decision that his monochromatic voice and bluesy rock ‘n’ roll shouldn’t always sound otherworldly. In Pierce’s (possibly) sober new world, earthiness, it seems, is now OK.
Just as Charlie Brown should always miss the football, Spiritualized should always sound unearthly, soaring through the universe like a comet tripped out on X. Spiritualized’s fourth studio CD, Let It Come Down, is a decent rock record, with Pierce’s long-running love for trad rock ‘n’ rolland all the crusty notions of purity and realness that go with itwinning out over his love for psychedelia. But for all its predictable strengths, Let It Come Down never approaches true transcendencewhich just happens to be the central goal of any Spiritualized album. Like its creator, Let It Come Down is in need of a quality fix.
But if the new disc’s music doesn’t have much of a drug-addled aura, Pierce’s lyrics still do. Both the blistering “The Twelve Steps” and the waltzing “The Straight and the Narrow” address failed attempts at recovery. Does “The trouble with the straight and the narrow is it’s so thin I keep sliding off to the side/And the devil makes good use for these hands of mine” sound like something Stuart Smalley would croon? Despite the just-say-no rumors, Pierce seems to be a man still wrestling with addiction.
The press release calls Let It Come Down “the most song-based LP yet from Spiritualized,” but that’s not giving Pierce’s past albums enough credit. There are strong songsin their purest three-chord, kick-in-the-ass, gospel-blues-based formsat the hearts of Lazer Guided Melodies (1992), Pure Phase (1995), and Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997), with each track smothered in the most glorious arrangements for washed-out keyboards, deep-fuzz guitar, and big ‘n’ beautiful strings. Let It Come Down certainly has the stringssometimes 30 or more players at once, sawing away at their violins and cellosbut here, they’re played disappointingly straight and decorative, like tonal padding on a pop-standards album. “Out of Sight,” for example, features both florid strings and blaring horns, but they’re layered and layered until the melodramatic crud is so thick that you simply stop paying attention to what an uninspired song it is.
Pierce once knew that tension breeds quality music, and Spiritualized has always been in a tense place: Even though the band has remained mostly intact, a fair number of members have come and gone over the years. In 1999, Pierce fired the rhythmic core of Spiritualized, figuring that he needed to create chaos to get his juices flowing again. Though the personnel change may have been needed to keep people from killing each other, deposed bassist Sean Cook had it right when he told the NME, “Spiritualized has had its engine ripped out.”
Pierce’s new songs miss the telepathic talents of his former bandmates, especially Cook, who, along with drummer Damon Reece and guitarist Mike Mooney, has since formed Lupine Howl (a band that sounds like the substandard Spiritualized side project it is). Within Pierce’s musical landscapes, Cook was golden, simultaneously grounding and elevating the tunes with rippling melody lines that started on top of a mountain and were resolved only after they tumbled through everything in their paths. Only the driving, droney “The Twelve Steps” on Let It Come Down features Cook-style bubbling bass lines romping at the melodic front and center. Though the new album occasionally hints at the melancholic grandness of Lazer Guided Melodies and Pure Phase, and at the blissed-out verve of the more rollicking Ladies and Gentlemen, overall, Let It Come Down is missing somethingsomething like a band. Pierce has always been Spiritualized’s dictator, but the rhythm section was his badass army; now he has hired guns.
At the very least, Let It Come Down would benefit from a band just to keep Pierce’s MOR leanings in check. When the Spaceman himself manages to, the results are fairly impressive: After the album’s first two straight-rock romps”On Fire,” with its stale boogie-piano, and “Do It All Over Again”the third song, “Don’t Just Do Something,” slips back into the spirit of Spiritualized: slo-mo balladry tripping on LSD strings, maudlin horns, swatches of tremolo, and oceans of overdub. The song’s simple ascending-then-descending chord pattern is as familiar as it is welcome. “Stop Your Crying” also enters Spiritualized’s past orbit of gospelized lullabies, and it reaches the Phil Spector-esque rapture that the rest of Let It Come Down fails to achieve: Grand timpani loudly introduce a full gospel choir that belts the chorus”C’mon, baby, stop your crying”with enough force to dry a river.
But too often, Let It Come Down succumbs to heavy doses of straight, soulful balladry rather than the misty, untenable sadness Spiritualized personified in the past. “I Didn’t Mean to Hurt You” is on par with the melancholic sap produced by Live and the like; though the tune has smarter production than anything Ed Kowalczyk has ever done, it’s still an uninspired half-song. “Anything More” is so lush, so grand, so awash in strings that it’s easy to imagine Julie Andrews singing it. “Won’t Get to Heaven (The State I’m In)” is more ersatz soulfulness, as is “Lord Can You Hear Me,” which sounds straight from the Pink Floyd files. And I don’t mean from the Syd Barrett or even the Roger Waters era. Mr. Gilmour, meet Mr. Pierce: I suggest you both score some new inspiration. CP
Spiritualized performs Tuesday, Oct. 23, at the 9:30 Club. For more information, call (202) 393-0930.