Album: Spiritualized, "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" (Fat Possum)
If you're expecting a major breakthrough or reinvention of Spiritualized at this point, you're probably looking for a different band altogether. Jason Pierce is like a ship captain steering a huge ship over a vast ocean: any sudden moves and you could hit an iceberg and sink, so his course corrections are marginal, at best. Why move quickly after a lifetime spent judging carefully?
"Sweet Heart Sweet Light" is more of the same from these guys (whoever "these guys" are right now -- membership in Spiritualized is a rather fluid conceit); i.e., not remarkably different from 2008's "Songs in A&E," but that's a feature, not a bug. Pierce has been doing this sort of thing a very long time and doesn't care for your fads or your bells or your whistles one bit. Well, perhaps he'd like some of your bells, maybe. Just a little one.
In any case, "Spiritualized" is basically one long song cycle that dates back to 1992, right around the time Pierce had seen Peter Kember's face enough to start a band all his own; the quasi-opener "Hey Jane" (the wordless throb "Huh?" technically opens the set; helpfully, it's subtitled "Intro") picks up almost precisely where the last album left off, the band's druggy, floaty dream-rock snapping into place with the uniformity and fit of LEGO pieces. The song -- a mid-tempo rocker with a chugging smokestack beat -- meanders for eight minutes and then some but the tune never overstays its welcome. It's comforting, in 2012, to look over there and see some guys calling themselves Spiritualized doing mostly the same kind of thing some guys calling themselves Spiritualized were doing a decade ago. It's almost like Menudo, except with space rock and a more subdued color palette.
The band's trademark trippiness doesn't engage fully into the big cranking gear until "Get What You Deserve," the set's fourth track. It interacts with the brain on a slyly subliminal level, a level where Pierce has always felt most comfortable. The track runs only six minutes, but careless listeners will easily drift away on the song's undulating surface and find themselves floating in the middle of a huge body of water. Gentlemen, we are floating in the middle of a song that appears to be of indeterminate duration.
Much of the set is more traditional and pastoral. "Too Late" is almost quaint, Kinks-type balladry dressed in Olde Englande livery; you can practically taste the quiet desperation. "Freedom is yours if you want it," Pierce intones on "Freedom," the next of these slow-tempo ballads, "but you just don't know what you need." It's almost a dirge or an Irish drinking ballad. "Headin' For the Top Now" is a fairly unremarkable rocker that breaks up the streak of drowsy cuts, but "I Am What I Am," despite its Popeye-wannabe title, is a grower. "I'm the planet that lights the sun," J. Spaceman boasts amid throbbing, gut-level bass and slithering guitar lines. The backing singers chirp in, too brightly, and the house of cards wobbles like something built by the Brian Jonestown Massacre, but does not implode. At just over four and a half minutes, it's almost economical, too.
Following another shuffling drinking dirge (they may be cosmic drugonauts, but they're also solid Warwickshire lads), the album closes with the deceptively simple "So Long You Pretty Thing," which begins with Pierce mysterious intoning "Take the long way home past the scary Jesus" and then turns into a fair semblance of late-era Velvet Underground. "Help me lord, help me father, because I think I'm losing my mind," J. Spacemen says, and the gently plucked banjo behind the lyrics almost drives the point home, because who would put banjo on a space-rock record? Spiritualized would, and that's sort of the point: the song swells on Bacharach-like strings to a movie-perfect conclusion (the hero walks into the sea), and you figure Pierce is either saying goodbye forever or just going out for a loaf of bread.
We probably won't find out for another five years. But when we do, it'll sound pretty much the same as "Sweet Heart Sweet Light." Bank it.