Drowned in Sound –
Venue: London Queen Elizabeth Hall
You’d be forgiven for suspecting that, after 20 years of blowing minds, traumatizing ears and shattering hearts with Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, Jason Pierce might now have exhausted his ability to inspire, innovate and surprise. After all, Amazing Grace, Spiritualized’s most recent full length, was an uncharacteristically flat affair – all throwaway garage rock noise and limp ballads. Yet this show, part of his current Acoustic Mainlines tour, not only marks a powerful return to form, it heralds a shift in direction which could yet see the Spaceman truly break out of the leftfield indie niche which, despite Spiritualized’s relative chart success, he has inhabited his whole career.
This is because this arrangement – Pierce’s vocals and acoustic guitar embellished by Spiritualized cohort Doggen on electric piano, three-piece gospel choir and string quartet – produces the most inclusive and accessible music of the Spaceman’s career, bringing out the magisterial purity and jaw-dropping beauty of the material more effectively than ever before. The world and his wife know of Pierce’s love for gospel music, yet never has it been more evident that so much of his material has actually been, in essence, pure gospel, which just happened to have been performed by white men with guitars. ‘Cool Waves’, for instance, has everything bar the overenthusiastic priest rousing the congregation to join in for the choruses. The rarely-performed Spacemen 3 track ‘Hey Man’ (the clue’s in the title) sees Pierce’s plaintive tones mesh with the heavenly gospel backing to suggest a devotion to the good Lord that, whilst undoubtedly unconventional, is no less pure or intense.
As impressive as the full-on electric assault of Spiritualized tours in recent years has been, the beauty and fragility of the songs have increasingly been blasted out of the equation in favour of dazzling lights and hypno-monotonous bombast. Yet this arrangement brings everything back to the essence, and never have Pierce’s vocals – often a weak link over the years – been so strong and yet so disarming. When ‘The Straight And The Narrow’ appeared on 2001’s Let It Come Down album, the excellence of Spaceman’s voice was striking – belting it out tonight, in a performance arguably even stronger that on record, it is just par for the course amidst showstopper after showstopper.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of all is the segue of the criminally underrated ‘Anything More’ into the rarely performed ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ – arguably the most precious gem of all in the Spaceman’s glittering canon – extracting the biggest cheer of the night with the inclusion of the original Elvis Presley lyrics Pierce was legally obliged to cut from the final recording.
As well as a handful of new Spiritualized numbers – whose undeniable quality casts even more unfavourable light upon the Amazing Grace material – tonight’s setlist includes no less than three Daniel Johnston covers; one hell of a doff of the cap to the troubled American songwriter at whose tribute show back in April Pierce debuted his latest musical incarnation. The Johnston standard ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ is transformed from the tender yet clumsy acoustic ramble it originally was into a glorious, sweeping mass of swirling strings and gospel harmonies, while ‘Funeral Home’ mutates from throwaway black comedy into an intense, swooning meditation on life after death.
For all of his career’s courageous sonic adventuring, his personality’s notorious singularity and his medication cabinet’s prodigious volume, Jason Pierce is, above all, an artist inordinately skilled in communicating human emotion in all its vulnerability, erraticness and wondrousness, plumbing the depths and soaring with the highs, able to unlock and engage previously neglected corners of listeners’ hearts and minds. It is this that made Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space the truly landmark album that it remains almost ten years on from release, and now, with this latest incarnation, the Spaceman reminds us exactly why he is just so very, very special.