"Well, it sure sounds like Spiritualized."
This kind of shrugging admission, which accompanied the first few listens to the latest LP by Jason Pierce's long-running space rock outfit, hardly seems to be an enthusiastic one. After all, at first glance Pierce has done little to change the original MO he set for himself upon the release of 1992's Lazer Guided Melodies—namechecking Jesus; taking drugs; wrapping his perpetually bruised heart in yards of gauze; and swigging on a cocktail equal parts blues, krautrock, and psych, with a dash of punk, chamber music, and gospel.
But as much as that is fairly true, Spiritualized has never quite done the same thing twice. The adjustments may be subtle, but every album has carried with it a conscious twist on Pierce's favourite themes. From the orchestra-powered experiment of 2001's Let It Come Down and the way that 1997's immediately classic Ladies and Gentlemen flexed the muscles grown during 1995's Pure Phase to their fullest, to the broken-teeth punk gospel of 2003's Amazing Grace, every record has a distinct accent that tweaks Pierce's language just so. (For great proof of this, examine how 1992's "Take Your Time" had grown from a gorgeous barely-there seance into a full-blown rockout by 1999's Royal Albert Hall.)
From a distance though, there was a sameness in the material that, when combined with the nearly impossible-to-shake legacy of Ladies..., rendered each subsequent Spiritualized album as less and less of an event. After some twenty years (if one included his incredibly groundbreaking work with Spacemen 3) of singing about a seemingly interminable loop of getting fucked up and finding redemption, it appeared the guy had reached something of a creative endgame—one that both he and his audience were increasingly aware of.
That all changed in 2008, however. Following on the heels of a vicious bout with double pneumonia, Songs In A&E was a harrowing and relatively stripped-down effort that was Pierce's best record in a decade. The disease may have literally nearly killed him, but the resultant experience rejuvenated his brand. It was impossible to divorce the real life from the art, and suddenly all of the same themes about which Pierce had always sung—death, love, sin, God—meant that much more. Even when very much sounding near death, ("Death Take Your Fiddle" even went as far as to feature the sound of an artificial respirator similar to the one that kept Pierce alive), it had been a long time since Pierce sounded so vital...both to us and himself.
Sweet Heart Sweet Light builds off of that career-rekindling momentum with the closest thing to a classic Spiritualized record since 1997. Unlike so many of his recent albums, there is no discernible premise to differentiate it from others in his catalogue (i.e. no self-composed scores, or amps turned up to eleven). Instead, it pulls liberally from the template built by Pure Phase and perfected by L & G (minus the free jazz)—big gospel, widescreen love songs, scuzzy confessionals, and kraut blues, all with key contributions from horns, backing vocalists, and orchestras. But if it deviates the least from Spiritualized's set parameters, it also seems the least embarrassed about doing so. Just as Dylan has parlayed an obsession with mimicking old-time radio and 12-bar blues into a late-career winning streak, Sweet Heart Sweet Light is the sound of Pierce taking what's his in a way that makes no apologies. It simply enjoys the hard-won fruits of his hard-lived labours.
Whether our own distance from those aforementioned albums has created a nostalgia that also allows for this to occur is certainly debatable. But from the way that "Hey Jane" shifts from jumping rave-up to chugging modern-day devotional; how "Headin' For The Top Now" essentially doesn't change much for eight plus minutes, yet always sounds shimmeringly potent; or the manner in which he makes an atheist like me wanna hitch a ride with Jesus on "Life Is A Problem," it's clear that after so much searching and tweaking (in both senses of the word) his music still matters for all the right reasons. Over time, Pierce has managed to distill a full century's worth of American and British music into a concoction that sounds like Spiritualized. And if he's been burned or gotten lost along the way, it only makes an album like this all the sweeter, for him and us.