Spiritualized album full of earthy melodies, fearless lyrics

Spiritualized's "Sweet Heart, Sweet Light" earns five out of five stars.

Mack Hayden and Mack Hayden

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It starts with an intonation. Lilting strings fulfill their function perfectly, making hearts break and restore in the course of a single modulation. This introduction will return at album’s end, this time invoking Jesus’ name for help in every way. Given the track names, the first poses a question (“Huh?”) — also emblazoned on the cover of “Sweet Heart, Sweet Light” — and the second-to-last track gives the best answer that the album can muster, namely, that “Life is a Problem.”

Spiritualized is no “best-of-what’s-next.” They’ve been around for a while, but they may be new to your radar. They are an outfit that arose out of the discarded wardrobe of Jason Pierce’s previous band Spacemen 3. They were a group devoted to cultivating atmospherics and minimalism, occasionally at the cost of melody. Spiritualized comes across as a sort of Protestant Reformation to Spacemen 3’s Holy Roman Empire. Where Spacemen constructed sonic edifices that could be lost in their own pretension, Spiritualized keeps the best parts of tradition while no longer needing to create soundscapes as thick and unnavigable as medieval Christendom, pumping it all full of vibrancy, life and independence.

Heartfelt songs, spiritual messages

So what do we have here? “Sweet Heart, Sweet Light” is a cosmos trying to hold itself together. Pierce sees the world and the girls he loves, the wonders and woes all abounding, and then writes songs like these. When they break into chaos, it’s the heartbeat he tried to keep silent beginning to resound.

Lyrically, he’s Lou Reed on a good day — doubtful about hope but welcoming conversation with whichever angel of light may cross his path. “Hey Jane” conjures quick comparisons to Reed’s landmark band The Velvet Underground’s classic, “Sweet Jane,” and it’s a comparison Pierce would be happy with. He steps into the alternative rock tradition with the awkward confidence it necessitates and begets.

If your ears were perked by the band’s name, don’t get too excited. Spiritualized is exactly that: a testament to riffing on the road to find out but never sure of arrival or destination. Pierce is a lost soul, searching for salvation, taking whatever he can to be set free from both the unbearable lightness of being and the crushing weight of his own mortality. It’s an album that knows salvation can rarely be found shining except against a background of darkness.

“My mama said when she got so concerned / Don’t play with fire and you’ll never get burned / Don’t touch the flame and you’ll never find out / My mama said that’s what love’s all about / But it’s too late / I made up my mind / Love only shows when there’s eyes that go blind,” he sings close to the album’s center on “Too Late.” Avoidance of life’s pain isn’t going to get anyone anywhere, he seems to plead. You can’t say you’ve seen the light unless you’ve known the darkness.

Lyrics full of Christian allusions

Still, Pierce is much more diplomatic toward the cause of Christianity than most searching rock stars. His entreaties and pleas are not for the ears of men alone but Christ himself as well. “Jesus, won’t you be my radio? / Lord, cast direction where I gotta go / Send me your signal, I will receive / Jesus, please be there, take care of me,” he coos on “Life is a Problem.” The song stands out as almost psalmic, a ready applicant to any school of hymnody.

The album’s final track, “So Long You Pretty Thing,” comes with church organ already assembled. He pleads, “Help me, Lord, help me, Jesus / ‘Cause I’m lonely and tired / Help me, Lord, it ain’t easy / ‘Cause I’m living with the blind / I got no reason to believe in anything.” The song fits perfectly into the traditions laid by other “secular gospel” tracks like Blind Faith’s “Presence of the Lord” or U2’s entire “Joshua Tree” album.

Pierce has come a long way since Spacemen 3. That band was otherworldly but this latest entry in the Spiritualized catalogue is altogether earthy. He’s looking upward and around with the rest of us, hoping to be called to a country he’s yet to see. It’s honest, it’s real and it’s one of the best albums of the year so far.

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Spiritualized album full of earthy melodies, fearless lyrics