To most Americans, there’s a clear and defined section of 90s Brit-rock bands worth hearing. Radiohead, Oasis, Blur, sometimes Pulp. These are bands that conjure an image in most people’s heads, even if it is for “Creep,” “Wonderwall,” and “Song 2,” respectively. Then there are the bands of the same ilk that never quite broke in America. If you mention Manic Street Preachers or Super Furry Animals to most here, you’ll find that they don’t know who the hell you’re talking about. This isn’t something that is anybody’s fault; some bands just don’t break in a lot of places. I’ve heard people (read: a lot of people) refer to Super Furry Animals as ” absolutely the best band since The Beatles,” a statement that my own wife (upon hearing Rings Around The World) referred to as “pure fucking garbage.” I talk about my wife’s taste in music a lot, and I find that she is the best reflection of a moderate fan of semi-underground music I have yet to come across in my life. In short, she’s a fantastic scale for what everyone else might like, if they found themselves to be a fan of indie rock.
I’ve never been able to gauge her interest in Spiritualized. On the dozen occasions I have played Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space during sleeping hours, she has given a lukewarm “it was alright” every time I’ve asked. To most fans abroad, this response might garner disbelief, but it’s entirely possible that they were just not meant for most here. They may be the best example of a band that, despite their prowess, is more geared to a British mindset, rather than an American mindset.
You will never find me blaming Jason Pierce for this, though. In my book, Ladies And Gentlemen is an undeniable classic, and a record where every note is exactly where it was meant to be. Like a lot of bands I could name, that one record has made it impossible for me to try and connect with the rest of their catalog. “What if it’s just not as good?” I might ask myself, when considering picking up another record. I know this to be a foolish decision; everyone I have ever heard talk about Let It Come Down or Pure Phase has never found themselves with a bad word to say. I myself have tried on, and truly enjoyed, Songs in A&E on multiple occasions, only to do something silly like put on Suburban Kids With Biblical Names instead. So, when I got wind of the fast progress of Sweet Heart Sweet Light, I was more than ecstatic; not just because it was a new record by a band I enjoyed, but maybe it was what I needed to finally break into the rest of a band I was obsessive about because of a single record.
The first thing I notice about the record is that it doesn’t have the edge of sadness and anger to which I had become accustom. Don’t take this as a complaint. From the moment “Hey Jane” gets roaring, you feel like you’ve been submerged in a warm pool, swallowing you up from all sides. This feeling keeps you afloat for the 9-minute duration of the track, even when you (if you’re anything like me) find yourself thinking, “holy shit, this is one song!” Sweet Heart plays with repetition frequently, and to its credit, it makes every song a little more memorable for it, be it the “Hey Jane, where you’re going today?” of “Hey Jane,” or the “Gonna shoot you while you’re layin’ down, I used up all of my devotion/Gonna shoot you while you’re layin’ still, I lost all of my emotion” in the slow-motion dirge of “Get What You Deserve.” It’s a trick that works well for punk bands, it’s no wonder it works when the music is anything but abrasive. Pierce may be the most talented song-builder living today, and it shows on this record: themes of redemption and loss whiz by without ever beginning to feel cumbersome, but they linger long enough for you to start to feel them. Even amid the breezy 70s AM pop-rock, you can’t help but feel what he’s going through, whatever it might be.
Sweet Heart is a hard album to take down in one sitting. If every song were as simple and well-constructed as the aforementioned tracks, it would be easy, but then you have the songs that, while by no means lacking in power, feel more like the labors of sorrow seen in lines like “Freedom is just another word” from Songs in A&E‘s “Soul on Fire,” or the single-man call-and-response of “Think I’m In Love” from Ladies and Gentlemen. Here, “Freedom” sways like a tree in the breeze, but once you begin to take in the words, you start to notice the tone of the song belies the thoughts: “Freedom is yours if you want it/You just don’t know what you need/Made up my mind to leave you behind/You just don’t know what you feel.” It’s a song that wouldn’t pack such a gut punch if it were screamed at the top of his lungs. “I Am What I Am” starts with a squall of distortion, before the song kicks into gear, feeling like what Johnny Cash would have made if he booked some recording time in Hell. It’s a tough song to swallow, and once the wall-of-sound that Pierce loves so much gets going, it proves to be one of the most infectious songs on the album.
“If you feel lonely, and the world’s against you, take the long way home,” begins the optimistic (and often-triumphant) final track, “So Long You Pretty Thing.” In just under 8 minutes, if feels like the perfect summation of the album as a whole. It builds oh-so slowly, and takes about a minute for the song as a whole to take hold, but when it has you, it feels impossible to escape. “Help me Lord, help me Jesus, for I’m lonely and tired/Help me Lord, it ain’t easy, ’cause I’m living with the blind,” he moans almost under his breath, while the piano and drums twinkle along behind him. Largely, it’s a song about trying to find your way back to what has been lost (rather than accepting that it has been lost, like he normally does). It’s a common theme: even if what you loved is gone, it’s never too late to get back to it. And if you’re listening, and find yourself starting to get tired of the pace of things, just give it until halfway through. You won’t be disappointed.
In the end, Sweet Heart Sweet Light is the album that I had hoped I was going to hear, after going out of my way to not listen to the rest of the artist’s body of work. The drama and hardship that made that album a masterpiece are gone, but really, who can complain? If Jason Pierce is happy now, and this is what he makes when he’s happy, then I certainly hope he stays this way.