In 1953, a decade after the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann produced his 25th synthesis of lysergic acid diethylamide—better known as LSD-25—British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond was studying its effect on alcoholics in Canada when he coined the word that would name a category of drugs as well as an artistic, musical and social movement in the 1960s.
Humphry seized upon the Greek roots “psyche” (for “soul” or “mind”) and “delein” or “deloun” (“to make manifest” or “to show or reveal”) to form “psychedelic,” and he illustrated its use in a rhyming couplet: “To fathom hell or soar angelic/Just take a pinch of psychedelic.” Since then, few bands have embodied the mind-revealing or soul-manifesting goals of great psychedelic rock as effectively as Spiritualized.
The group’s founder, Jason “Spaceman” Pierce, first emerged on the British music scene in the mid-’80s when he and fellow guitarist Peter Kember, a.k.a. Sonic Boom, formed Spacemen 3, which specialized in dark, droning, Velvet Underground-style mantras steeped in chaotic noise and druggy excess: One memorable posthumous collection bore the appropriate title “Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To.”
When the duo split up in 1991, Pierce went on to found a new band dedicated to exploring what Humphry’s friend, the novelist Aldous Huxley, called “the journey toward the white light” via the connection between swirling psychedelic-rock drones and the inherently transcendent qualities of American blues, bebop and gospel. The first three Spiritualized albums—“Lazer Guided Melodies” (1992), “Pure Phase” (1995) and “Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space” (1997)—became instant cult classics, and despite a revolving lineup, the group’s live shows were even more powerful: A 1992 Spiritualized gig at the Riviera Theatre remains one of my favorite concerts ever, with the group performing on a fog-drenched stage lit several vertical columns of blinding white light to evoke a cross between revival-tent mysticism and Roman Catholic solemnity.
Notorious perfectionists in the recording studio, the wait between new Spiritualized albums grew longer in the new millennium, and when discs such as “Let It Come Down” (2001) and “Amazing Grace” (2003) finally arrived, Pierce seemed to be repeating himself, at a loss for how to take his signature sound even higher than the lofty peaks he’d already conquered.
“I always say that what you think you can rely on or the things you say ‘well, that works’ don’t always work,” Pierce says. “This elusive thing you’re chasing… it’s not simply science, it’s not about playing the notes in the right order, because you could be doing that and it could mean nothing, while someone else could play the same notes and it could mean everything. It’s this weird ghost that hangs between the notes that you chase, and it’s so elusive and hard to find. The songs kind of find their own space.”
With two recent releases—the brilliant new Spiritualized album “Songs in A&E” and “Mister Lonely,” a soundtrack for the Harmony Korine film credited to Jason Spaceman and the Sun City Girls and issued by Chicago’s Drag City label—Pierce has reconnected with his ethereal muse, though it partly was the result of a lot of suffering and a brush with death. In 2005, the musician contracted advanced periorbital cellulitis and bilateral pneumonia, which led to complete respiratory failure and a long stint of intensive care in the Royal London Hospital’s Accident and Emergency Ward.
That facility rather than the key of the tunes provides the title of “Songs in A&E,” and though much of the material was written before Pierce’s illness, the recording was strongly influenced by his recovery: Gorgeously orchestrated songs such as “Sitting on Fire” and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” emerged as anthemic celebrations of cheating the Grim Reaper, while the rhythm of “Death Take Your Fiddle” was provided by a heaving respirator that makes the lyrics all the more haunting. (“I think I’ll drink myself into a coma/And I’ll take every way out I can find,” Pierce sings. “But morphine, codeine, whisky, they won’t alter/The way I feel/Now death is not around.”)
Is it wrong to assume that Pierce’s illness prompted a profound reawakening, and that the new disc is the most spiritual Spiritualized album yet?
“I don’t know; it’s hard to recognize change from within. Maybe if you talked to people around me they would say, ‘Yeah, he’s changed. He’s not so’… I was going to say ‘not so obsessed,’ but I don’t think you could find a lot of people who would say that,” Pierce says, laughing.
“An illness like that takes so much out of you, and then you have to claw yourself back, and the more you claw back, the more you become like you were before you got ill. It’s kind of a disappointment, really; it’s kind of the opposite of what you expect. There is this idea of, ‘Hey, you got another chance. Go and take it!’ But I think it’s really hard to do that, or to say, ‘I’ve changed. My outlook is different.’ Reality is different from that.
“You know, they say in hospitals that you know when people are getting better because they start moaning again,” Pierce concludes. “People on the brink of death are often silent, but people who are recovering just sit and moan all day, and they’re much more difficult to deal with because of that. Everyone who has ever worked in those places says that’s just how it is.”
In other words, as Pierce’s musical heroes John Coltrane, the Staples Singers, John Lee Hooker, Lou Reed and many others have proven, giving voice to one’s pain is actually a sign of healing and the desire to live. And for all the dark edges to “Songs in A&E,” the album as a whole stands as an inspiring celebration.
“I hope so,” Pierce says. “I’m always just chasing this sound. I have no idea how to pursue it, I’m just obsessed with it, and when it works, it can go off into all directions and become this huge, powerful and glorious thing. I think great records are like time capsules: They travel farther through time and they travel farther away from me or the author and they ultimately carry this weird thing with them. And that’s what I’m interested in.”
Spiritualized performs at 7 p.m. Sunday, July 20, as one of the headliners on the final day of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park (Ashland at Lake and Racine). Three-day passes for the festival are sold out, but a limited number of one-day tickets still were available for $30 at press time; check http://pitchforkmusicfestival.com.)
Star rating for Spiritualized, "Songs in A&E" (Fontana): 4 OUT OF 4 STARS