POST-TEENAGE SYMPHONIES TO GOD Spiritualized

An expanded/remastered
version of
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space reaffirms Jason Pierce’s auteur status.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

Upon its release in mid-1997, the third Spiritualized studio
album was immediately hailed in some corners as a masterpiece; by year’s end,
that was the general consensus among most fans and critics, too, and it figured
heavily on annual best-of lists, including the Village Voice‘s influential “Pazz & Jop Poll” which listed it
at #17 behind such stiff competition as Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, Radiohead’s OK
Computer
, Belle and Sebastian’s If
You’re Feeling Sinister
, Steve Earle’s El
Corazon
and Portishead’s Portishead.
Revisiting the record now, more than a decade later, it’s not hard to hear why it captured the imagination of music lovers.

 

Unlike its drone-centric predecessors – 1992’s Lazer Guided Melodies, which was
virtually a Jason Pierce solo album recorded while his other band, Spacemen 3,
was imploding in slow (opiated) motion, and 1995’s experimentally-inclined Pure PhaseLadies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space boasted an overtly
rock vibe. It was indelibly marked by psychedelic blooze (the sprawling, 16-minute
“Cop Shoot Cop,” featuring Dr. John on piano and a blatting, freeform skronk
interlude reminiscent of the Stooges’ “L.A. Blues”), Nuggets-styled raveup garage (the wah-wah/harmonica-powered
“Electricity”) and symphonic compositions with wall of sound arrangements to
rival Phil Spector’s best (“All of My Thoughts,” “Home of the Brave”), not to
mention the swaggering, swinging “Come Together” that, in its anthemism and
horniness, could’ve passed for a long-lost Rolling Stones gem, and easily one
of the greatest songs to originate from the England in the ‘90s. Fuck Blur,
Suede, Pulp, Oasis and Elastica: this was the real Britpop, in all its hedonistic, rock’s-rich-tapestry
plundering madness and glory.

 

Not that Pierce had abandoned all of his textural trademarks
and kosmiche mannerisms. This is a
guy, after all, who still refers to himself as “J. Spaceman” from time to time.
Just to cite one example, the delightfully sensual “I Think I’m In Love”
contains several familiar JP musical motifs, including a signature keyboard
drone that had been surfacing in his compositions since Spacemen 3’s legendary ’87
opus The Perfect Prescription and the
R&B and gospel inflections (like call-and-response singing and choir
harmony vocals marking the tune’s second half) he’d toyed with from time to
time in the past. Taken as a whole, Ladies
and Gentlemen
was a fully-realized, intensely focused collection that
displayed Pierce at the height of his songwriting powers, backed by what many
have called the “classic” Spiritualized lineup (Kate Radley, Sean Cook, Damon
Reese – additionally abetted by Dr. John, Jim Dickinson and an array of string
and horn players and vocalists) and crafting a latterday generation’s post-teenage
symphonies to God.

 

The record also had a fairly solid thematic hook: drugs. In interviews promoting the
album, Pierce tended to veer cryptic, offering up party-line platitudes
designed to reveal as little as possible. I had talked to him a couple of times
previously and found him to be naturally reticent as an interview subject, but
when I tried to probe him about L&G,
the moment I touched upon song specifics he grew evasive, far more comfortable
discussing musical and cultural heroes than his personal life.

 

Or maybe he just felt like the lyrics spoke for themselves.
It’s not difficult to parse the meaning of lines like “Hey man there’s a hole
in my arm where all the money goes/ Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose”
(from “Cop Shoot Cop,” with a hat-tip to both John Prine and Patti Smith) or
“Little J’s a fucked up boy/ Who dulled the pain but killed the joy/ And little
J’s a fucking mess/ But when he’s offered just says yes” (“Come Together” –
three guesses who “little J” is).

 

Admittedly, songwriters are free to indulge their metaphorical
sides and aren’t required to file a disclaimer each time out. The lyrics of
“Electricity” contain multiple possible interpretations; “I’m playing with fire
if you know what I mean/ I need someone to help me turn it on” could easily refer
to a man who’s simply ablaze with lust, just like the old blues singers. But anyone
with a passing knowledge of Pierce’s backstory will probably get the implied
wink in the phrase “if you know what I mean,” not to mention the sly reference
to Spacemen 3’s well-documented “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to”
ethos contained in the words “playing with fire.” Pierce may be more oblique in
his phrasings than erstwhile S3 bandmate Pete Kember (who’s occasionally paid
dearly for his chemical candidness), but he’s no angel.

 

And let’s face it, despite one song being titled “Broken
Heart” and another “I Think I’m In Love,” regardless of the fluctuating state
of Pierce’s romantic life at the time (Bradley had recently left him for the
Verve’s Richard Ashcroft), the man’s fallback position – or remedy, if you will
– remained singular. From the latter tune:

 

“Sun so bright that
I’m nearly blind
Cool cos I’m wired and I’m out of my mind
Warms the dope running down my spine
But I don’t care ’bout you and I’ve got nothing to do
Free as the warmth in the air that I breathe
Even freer than DMT
Feel the warmth of the sun in me
But I don’t care ’bout you and I’ve got nothing to do
Love in the middle of the afternoon
Just me, my spike in my arm and my spoon.”

 

To its artistic credit, though, L&G, in addition to its heart-on-vein vignettes, sounds like someone in the combined throes
of drug-fueled madness, earthbound agony, and sundry religious ecstasies. It’s
as pure a musical-lyrical distillation of one man’s perilous mental state as The Perfect Prescription, ten years
earlier, was a depiction of a marathon drug trip. Given the inexorable connection
between drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, I might go as far as to say that TPP was the greatest drug album of the
‘80s and LAGWAFIS the greatest from the
‘90s.

 

***

 

So how do you improve upon a masterpiece? Wisely, Pierce
didn’t succumb to the same urges that some artists do when they work on
so-called “Deluxe Edition” reissues, namely to tinker excessively with the
sonics and mixes. For Ladies and Gentlemen
We Are Floating in Space BP: Special Edition
(at the moment, available only
in the UK via Medicated/Sony), aside from adding extra tracks and fresh
artwork, remastering the original tapes using technology not available back in
’97 was apparently his main goal. My ears can’t really detect any significant
differences between the old CD and the new one, which suggests that the
notoriously perfectionist Pierce got it right the first time around and
realized it.

 

One other thing he did do, in a move to put history back in
its rightful place, was restore to the original opening title track the “Can’t
Help Falling In Love” interpolation: when L&G was first released, Elvis Presley’s estate objected to the inclusion of lyrics
and melody lines from the Elvis chestnut, so subsequent pressings contained a
reworked version of the song sans the
offending content. For this new reissue, the title track is as it originally
was, with the title now reading “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in
Space (I Can’t Help Falling in Love)” – and, presumably, with regular royalty
statements being forwarded to Memphis.

 

As reported previously, L&G now comes in three formats: standard one-CD edition; the limited “Special
Edition” featuring a pair of bonus discs and deluxe packaging; and the
super-limited (1000 copies) “Collector’s Edition” containing the full album
pressed up on 12 x 3″ mini CDs plus the two bonus CDs and even snazzier packaging.
You can read about all this elsewhere at BLURT (where photos of the new artwork
are also on display) or at the official Spiritualized.com site.

 

The bonus material, admittedly, is in one sense more
artistically revealing than musically compelling, so your need to hear it will
probably hinge on how devoted you are to the album itself (and to the band).
Discs 2 and 3 amount to a full 110 minutes’ worth of extras, 18 tracks on Disc
2 (a/k/a Spiritualized SP 50) and 17 tracks on Disc 3 (Spiritualized
SP 60
). There range from a 7-song “suite” of sorts detailing the
title track (including a gorgeous a cappella rendering of the
“Can’t Help Falling In Love” theme, the band sounding like a gospel
choir backing Pierce’s fragile lead vocal) and a pair of wild demo takes of
“Come Together” (in different keys, no less),  to a tingly recording of just the strings
arrangement for “Broken Heart” that segues into the “vocal
harmony/Angel Corpus Christi” version of the song.

 

Yet via assorted demos and backing tracks you begin to get a
fly-on-wall perspective of what exactly went into the making of the whole record.
That aforementioned title song suite, for example, demonstrates how the tune
was stitched together – its fourth section is the original recording of Radley
phoning in, complete with keypad-pushing bleeps and bloops, to recite the
spoken word intro, and is titled, sensibly, “Kate telephone call”; the sixth
extract, “Early Auratone ideas,” comprises snippets of Pierce’s vocal that
would get looped, doubled and echoed for the final take. Equally illuminating
is the spooky three-minute guitar/bass/percussion demo for “Cop Shoot
Cop” that’s followed by a six-minute track labeled “Dr. John ‘The
National Anthem'” which is indeed The Night Tripper himself tinkling the
ivories against the backdrop of noise that, on the original album, eventually
grew so fearsome it obscured his contribution to the track, but here has
him clearly audible throughout. There’s also a four-minute “String session mix”
version of “CSC” which, minus the cacophony, hearkens back sonically to the
Pierce drone/gospel template discussed above and holds up as a separate song in
its own right.

 

Some of this discussion may seem a clinician’s approach to
the album, but the L&G album’s
songs were/are so strong compositionally that the various components displayed
across these two bonus discs retain a good deal of the complete, original
tunes’ charm.

 

As a healthy, satisfying secondary dose of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in
Space
, the “Special Edition” just may be what the doctor ordered. Take only
as directed.

 

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