Sometimes it’s difficult to separate the singer from the song, and although he has often gone to great lengths to deny it, this has always been especially true of Jason Pierce (AKA J. Spaceman), the leader and sole constant member of Spiritualized. Well-documented personal problems – including a recent near-fatal battle with pneumonia during which Pierce technically died twice – have directly inspired a succession of epic, spectacularly ambitious albums filled with songs about heartbreak, drug addiction and mortality; overt references to heroin use have cropped up in his music since 1995’s “Medication”, whilst the band’s bona-fide modern rock classic Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is widely thought to be the product of his break-up with former band-mate Kate Radley. Seventh long-player Sweet Heart Sweet Light was born under the influence of a different kind of drug. After the aforementioned near-death experience resulted in 2008’s Songs In A&E, Pierce fell ill again and underwent a series of lengthy experimental medical treatments that left him mentally and physically exhausted and largely house-bound; keen to give himself something to focus on, he decided to use the down-time to record an album of straightforward, uncomplicated pop songs. Predictably, though, these soon evolved into something much less simple, with more than fifty participants (including Dr. John, saxophonist Evan Parker and gospel singers the Roundhouse Choir) contributing backing vocals, percussion, additional instruments and orchestral flourishes. Still, overblown as they are, the likes of “Hey Jane” and “Little Girl” are most definitely pop, albeit in the old-fashioned, Mojo-readers’ sense of the word. The latter is a string-laden slow-groover that is just a Dusty vocal away from a 1967 Muscle Shoals soul session; the former starts off as a swinging glam-blues stomp before a mid-song gear-shift sends it gliding gleefully down the Autobahn into blissed-out Krautrock territory. It’s not only one of the best tunes in the Spiritualized canon, but also one of several here that pay homage to the Velvet Underground more explicitly than anything Pierce has written since his days with Spacemen 3. “Get What You Deserve” subscribes to Lou and co.’s “three chords good, two chords better” theory, with droning keyboards augmented by strings and free-jazz skronk whilst “Headin’ For The Top” splatters feedback Pollock-like all over a seven-minute appropriation of “I’m Waiting For The Man”’s skeletal rattle, and although “Freedom”’s attempt at a “Pale Blue Eyes”-style lullabye falls somewhat short of the mark, Pierce’s intentions are never less than sincere. Consequently, it’s easy to forgive the singer’s frequent lapses into rock ’n’ roll cliché. Lines like “Sometimes I wish that I was dead/ ‘Cos only the living can feel the pain”, “Don’t play with fire and you’ll never get burned” and “Ain’t gonna stop until I die” are admittedly clunky, but anyone expecting something different from Pierce is missing the point; even the over-egged quasi-religious imagery of “Life Is A Problem” (“Jesus won’t you be my radio/ Broadcast direction where I gotta go”) just adds to the charm of what is arguably the best Spiritualized album since Ladies And Gentlemen. Subtle? Not at all. Sentimental? Of course. But whilst newer fans may find the idea of Pierce’s 11 year-old daughter Poppy providing backing vocals on closer “So Long You Pretty Things” a little too sugary for their tastes, those who have followed the Spaceman over the course of his 20-year journey, with all its trials and tribulations, will surely agree it’s actually pretty sweet.
Sweet Heart Sweet Light is out April 16 on Double Six/ Domino in the UK and April 17 on Fat Possum in the US