HEAVEN'S JUST A HEARTBEAT AWAY
There are bands that, when they come to town, I will see no matter what sacrifice I have to make to do so. Depeche Mode, Low, Garbage, Suede (formerly), spring immediately to mind. Same goes for Spiritualized. I discovered Spiritualized live, seeing them open for Jesus & Mary Chain and Curve in 1992. That was pretty much on the ground floor, the first album and likely the “Medication” EP. I immediately sought out Laser Guided Melodies, and my college wallet was pleased to find it used.
My love affair with this band has been unwavering. J. Spaceman, also known as Jason Pierce, has a brilliant, obsessive mind. One can’t just be a casual Spiritualized fan. You don’t just like one song. You don’t just have one album. To do so is to invite scorn. It’s like showing up to a PETA meeting in a fur coat, crying that you’re a vegetarian as you’re run out of the room. Each successive piece of music for this band builds on the last. You have to buy the singles to go with the albums, to hear the B-sides that are often instrumental versions or live tracks or straight-up revisitings of songs—as Spiritualized is a band that isn’t content to just let it lie. If a new idea comes for a different approach, they will explore it. (The first volume of Complete Works is a testament to that, containing multiple versions of many tracks. I am dying for the second volume, hoping upon hope it has an amazingly sad version of “Spread Your Wings” that was on a Select Magazine mix tape. That song has one of the most gorgeous violin riffs known to man.)
And when I say band, I really mean Jason Pierce. He is the driving force behind it all, the voice and the vision. He doesn’t have a lot of range when it comes to themes. Drugs—both good and bad, romance—both good and bad, religion—both good and bad. That’s about it. But if he repeats himself, it’s either to refine or to progress, to take his ideas to whichever extreme he deems necessary. In a way, it reminds me of Brett Anderson’s lyrics. He is much the same way, repeating sounds and rhymes and ideas, searching for the perfect expression of it. Anderson took a lot of flack for the writing on Suede’s fourth album, Head Music, for recycling lines, for going back to the “she” well too many times (he likes the sound of the word “she,” and will write songs where nearly every line begins with that word). I wrote an article that was accepted for the fanclub magazine (but never published) defending this practice. I compared it to Hemingway, who insisted an author wrote the same story every time he put pen to paper. It’s the same defense I’d make of Spiritualized.
I don’t know how many times I have seen Spiritualized now. I can think of at least five times, but it could easily be more, as venues here are often repeated and can blend together. Last night was at least #6. But I was just as excited as if it were #1.
I was not disappointed. The set-up is familiar. A drummer, two guitars, two guys on keyboards and various other instruments, a bass player—and Pierce, on both voice and a third guitar. The only real change was that Pierce sits down now, positioned at the side of the stage. He’s given up the pretense of the performance. Let the lights and the music do the trick.
The entered on the familiar “pure phase” tones, and launched straight into it with the raucous "This Little Life of Mine." The set was heavy on the latest album, Amazing Grace, with the last one, Let It Come Down, taking second place, particularly early on. I think only “Come Together” emerged before about halfway in, when the band delved back into earlier material with the awesome “Medication.” There was some drawback to this, in that the Roseland Theatre’s sound system seemed to have some glitches in it, and it was unable to handle the garage fuzz of the Amazing Grace material. When the music got loud, there was a speaker near me that would crackle.
This became too much to bear in “Cop Shoot Cop.” I was ready to draw some blood, at that point. You see, “Cop Shoot Cop” is always a highlight for me. The album closer on Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space, it usually clocks in at over 15 minutes. Pierce brings out an eighth player on saxophone, so that he has a full, massive, ear-shattering sound for the complete cacophony at the center of the number. An elegy to heroin, “Cop Shoot Cop” is full of heartbreak, desperation, and possible redemption. It’s middle bit where everything goes nuts and the musicians just thrash away at their instruments is awe inspiring. I often close my eyes and just let it take over. At one show years ago, I actually hallucinated I got so deep into it. As stupid as it sounds, I felt like I was inside the song, and I could see the colors it was making.
Well, a few minutes into it last night, the house lights came on for a brief second and one aspect of the sound system went out when they did. It may have been the monitors, because I noticed the musicians being a bit baffled and looking down at them. To their credit, they didn’t miss a beat, they kept playing, and the crowd cheered them on. But nearly a minute passed before the full sound came back, and when it did, there was still that crackle. Shameful!
As the show was approaching the two-hour mark, Pierce dusted off some oldies to round out the set. “Run” is still propulsive, still wonderful in its Velvet Undergroundisms; “Take Good Care of It” has a great build-up, getting more emphatic as it rolls; and “Smile” was an excellent closer, drifting from its romantic melodies to uninhibited noise, shrouding the band in feedback and distortion as they left the stage. There was no encore, but who needed it after a solid 120 minutes?
Perhaps my other highlight of the night was “Lay It Down Slow,” the end track on Amazing Grace. It’s a gorgeous song, reassuring and lovely. It’s amazing for someone who can write a song as deep down in the depths as “Cop Shoot Cop” or as sad as “Broken Heart” (the saddest love song ever?) can also write something so uplifting and hopeful. But that’s the beauty of this aptly named band. Their music is like religion. It does give you the spirit.
As an aside, does anyone know the origin of the phrase “cop shoot cop”? I know there was an absolutely terrible band by that name in the early ’90s, but does it predate them? As a concept, there are some interesting nuances to it. It suggests loss of order, of like turning on like, and in the context of the tune, one turning on oneself. I’d be curious to know where it came from. Drop me an e-mail if you know.
Current Soundtrack: Spiritualized, Flux & Amazing Grace