Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space" by Spiritualized (1997)

Jason Pierce should have known better. If you let your first band use a syringe as its logo and use "taking drugs to make music to take drugs to" as its motto, it's going to be tough to convince people that your second band represents something different.

So when his group Spiritualized releaed the album that this song serves as opening track, title track and main title theme for, "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space" in an album package that resembled a packet of prescription medicine, it was generally percieved as 'Jason Pierce returns to drug chic' - at least, by people who never bothered to listen to the album, or only listened to the lyrics.

To me, and maybe I'm just an optimist or an idealist here, this album - which I'd put in my personal top five of 'best albums ever' - is nothing as tacky as 'music to take drugs to'; it's packaged as it is because it aims to do what prescription medicine can: it aims to soothe, to medicate, to heal... If you think that sounds overwrought, you're right. But I believe that Jason Pierce genuinely believes in the power of music to heal. If not for the listener, at least for himself: apparently things were bad, romantically, for Pierce while recording this album, as his keyboardist and girlfriend Kate Radley married the verve's Richard Ashcroft, and Jason Pierce turned to heavier and heavier drugs to numb the pain. But, of course, the drugs don't work. Does the music?

Well, I can't say that this album has ever healed leukemia or herpes. But I can attest that, in a pitch black, empty, silent room at night, this album has the ability to alter moods significantly - to relax, to uplift, to transport. There exist in this album all kinds of emotional responses, but throughout there is a recurring haunting, spectral beauty that I find entrancing. I wasn't originally going to pick the title track, but then I realised it's not just the keynote of the album but also the piece I keep returning to in my head.

Launching into life with a female voice muttering the "Sophie's World"-referencing title and ending with a 'bleep' like a heart rate monitor, this song builds up, layer by layer, like a kids song done in 'rounds' a la 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat'. Famously, the Elvis people would allow him to interpolate "Can't Help Falling in Love" (so he merely evokes it by pseudo-plagiarising it), but even still there are several independent melodies riding on top of each other here. It creates a slowly-pulsating wall of sound that, unlike Phil Spector's dins, encourages you to focus in on individual bits of it and swim through its layers of sound at your own pace, picking up what you like an discarding the rest. If you sing along to songs as you listen to them, you'll find yourself building up your own version, flipping from melody line to melody line. As such, it can't really be said to have verses and choruses, and if it went on ten minutes longer than it actually does, it probably wouldn't do anything different except go through the cycles again and again and again. But it would still be wonderful.

I mentioned Phil Spector above. One thing Jason Pierce has in common with that murderous producer is that neither are embarrassed at all to make music that's unabashedly big. The scope of this music - which has nothing to do with prog and little to do with bombast - is at times amazing. This is 16:9 music, and even when he fails (as much as I love the album, it has many weak points), he earns top marks for setting the bar high. Few people truly believe in music as much as Jason Pierce does, though listening to this album and its lighter-than-air title track can convince you too.
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