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Seeing Spiritualized live in the last decade or so is to witness the bandleader Jason Pierce — or J. Spaceman as he becomes in the confines of his space-rock interpretation of pop canon — as a frail rocker. He often performed sitting down during that period regardless of how the songs moved him and was forthcoming about years of health issues ranging from near-fatal pneumonia in 2005 (his heart stopped beating multiple times, his weight sank below 100 pounds, and his girlfriend at the time began grief counseling in preparation for his eventual death) and liver disease that required the same treatment that they give leukemia patients in 2012. Coupled with a long reputation and lyrical infatuation with drug use, hearing new Spiritualized music in 2018 feels like a gift.
That feeling, of listening to music that was never promised, that is probably not deserved, and very well might be the last chance to spend time with an artist, permeates Spiritualized’s latest, titled And Nothing Hurt in a play off the famous Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five quote “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” For a life that has been notoriously plagued with pain, the title rings as a fantasy and feels particularly at home as the album deals with its creator’s own aging body and mortality with an unflinching nature. “I didn’t want to be fighting against my age; it’s very much about acceptance,” Pierce said in a statement about the album, adding, “and not with any dissatisfaction either – I’m not raging against the inevitable.”
It’s this backdrop that makes a line like “But if you want wasted, loaded, permanently folded / Doing the best that he can / I’m your man” from single “I’m Your Man” sting a little sharper. When so much of rock and roll is burdened with self-inflation, or at least some illusion of grandeur, Spiritualized operates in quite the opposite manner. There is hope in the music’s modesty, in Pierce’s own realizing of his limitations and the battling through it.
The prime example of this is how the record was created. For the first time as Spiritualized, Pierce became a solo artist, forced to record virtually every sound himself over the course of years in his apartment and nearby studios, the result of recording on a tight budget over a prolonged period of time. The task then becomes making And Nothing Hurt sound like a full-fledged Spiritualized album even without the resources he was used to having.
But the album rarely, if ever, betrays this fact. Pierce is still awash in huge orchestral arrangments, melodies that are rooted in the music he grew up with, and big rock moments meant to be performed in large spaces without anything holding it back. Only late-album track “The Morning After” struggles with this task, where Pierce’s voice sounds just a little too separated from the music behind it, the chasm of separate recording sessions to large to traverse.
But the vast majority of And Nothing Hurt finds Pierce successfully capturing the Spiritualized grandeur, now as a bedroom recording artist. It’s the kind of work that puts to shame most of the other bedroom pop that’s en vogue at the moment, eclipsing it in both ambition and the meticulousness way it’s constructed. Opener “Perfect Miracle” sounds like an echo of the lead song and title-track from Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, finding an equal, circular campfire-singalong vibe that is both timeless and present in the moment of now. It’s a song that takes its time to reveal its full nature and builds to a huge cathartic peak, so much so that knowing that the song was created in isolation only adds to its mystique. Ever the perfectionist, Pierce has spoken about how hard it is to listen to the record without hearing its mistakes, but that sense doesn’t rub off on the listener. And Nothing Hurt is such an overwhelming and immersive sensory experience that it’s almost impossible to approach what is lacking from it.
Spiritualized’s greatest strength has always been how Pierce has crafted a sort of love letter to the tradition of pop. Pierce puts himself up against the greats just to see if his own music can stand up to it, nearly an impossible standard that he somehow comes close to achieving. And Nothing Hurt is no different, with Pierce telling NPR, “I wanted to make like a 1960s Columbia Studios recording, but without ever going to the studio to put that thing together,” knowing exactly where and how he wants his own music to fit into the history of music. There are more subtle nods, too, with titles like “I’m Your Man” and “Let’s Dance” paying homage to music’s recently departed greats, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie respectively. It’s all a refreshing nod for anyone who considers themselves a musical scholar or cares as much about the music of the past as they do about the present.
The dichotomy of Pierce appearing in astronaut garb, naming himself Spaceman, and making music that evokes the elation of intoxication in the same breath as it does the vastness and loneliness of the cosmos — all while really making music that surveys the very best in pop from the ’60s and ’70s — is the heart of what makes Spiritualized one of the most beloved bands of the last twenty years. There’s something comforting in hearing a singer still croon about the open road and the radio dial, as Pierce does so effectively on “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go” just as he has in the past on masterpieces like “So Long You Pretty Thing” and “Always Forgetting With You (The Bridge Song).” In a lot of ways, Spiritualized is a portal to bygone days, when music was expected to be bigger than a room and bigger than your resources. And if this really is the last Spiritualized record, as Pierce has hinted at for the last couple years, it might be the perfect swan song, as sharp and inspired as anything he’s ever put out. For a man that’s always appeared so fragile, it’s his music that feels like it should live eternally.
And Nothing Hurt is out now on Fat Possum. Buy it here.