Jason Pierce has always been a prodigious sampler. On the title track from Spiritualized's breakout album Ladies and Gentlemen We're Floating in Space, Pierce riffed on an Elvis line and, like all great artists do, transformed the source material, turning an old ode to young, fated love into a euphoric waltz about heartbreak and getting stoned. Over the course of the band's 20-year existence, Spiritualized has done this time and again, drawing on a deep archive of (mostly) American musical forms, from roots music to rock n' roll. Much to their credit, Spiritualized has stubbornly refused to cannibalize the latest aesthetic trends, gaining that rare distinction of a band both rooted in tradition and always looking forward. If rock suffers the anxiety of influence, Pierce hides that suffering well.
All this is apparent in Sweet Heart Sweet Light's opening salvo, "Hey Jane," a nine-minute suite that begins as a bouncy pop number but ends somewhere else entirely. Backed by a clean guitar strum and Hammond organ, Pierce runs through a litany of rock n' roll clichés about a heroine in peril speeding down "the fast lane." Midway through, the beat tightens into a krautrock pulse, and the vocal melody shifts as Pierce's calls become more sinister: "Hey Jane, when you gonna die?" The song swells as gospel voices join in on the beatific line that gives the album its title. Over the span of one song, we hear Spiritualized in all their best incarnations: retro garage band, noisy experimenters, and gospel-driven songsmiths. In the process, Pierce offers up a song that's as good and as moving as anything he's ever written.
It's also, sadly, as good as Sweet Heart Sweet Light ever gets. After its opening crescendo, the album plods through songs that carry none of that initial momentum. As always, Pierce reworks his influences, bringing in Spector's orchestral walls on "Little Girl" and nicking a James Jamerson's bassline in "I Am What I Am." But occasionally, like on "Too Late," a song that shares the basic outline of 2003's "Lord Let It Rain on Me," the album reveals a band caught in its own history.
Lyrically, the album seems tired and, at times, trite. In "Little Girl," Pierce's lyrics come off like the ruminations of an angsty teenager or, for that matter, an angsty pentagenarian: "Sometimes I wish I was dead/'Cause only the living can feel the pain." If you've heard the story of Pierce's near-death to pneumonia while recording Songs in A&E, or the regime of medication he's endured during the making of this album, you might believe those words. But the problem is that the weight of that sentiment doesn't match the music. On earlier albums, Pierce could hide behind the sheer heft and power of his arrangements; throughout Sweet Heart Sweet Light, the lyrics are as thin as the songs are bare, and with lines like "Don't play with fire and you'll never get burned," the band feels dangerously close to becoming a parody of itself.
There are moments on Sweet Heart Sweet Light when Pierce sounds like he means it. In "Life Is a Problem," a simple country waltz that floats on a gorgeous string arrangement, Pierce plays a wayward drifter. The song seduces us into its aesthetic world, where a line like "Jesus, please be my radio" doesn't seem wholly out of place. In the album's closer, "So Long You Pretty Thing," the band lurches into a winding elegaic progression, before ending on a surprising, sing-along moment of optimism.
In interviews leading up to the album's release, Pierce has said that Sweet Heart Sweet Light was conceived as a straightforward pop record—one that culls from the Beach Boys to Chuck Berry and all the way back to the chaotic jazz of Peter Brötzmann. Those parts are all here, but unlike in the past, when Pierce stirred the pot and made something new, the album doesn't cohere in the way the best Spiritualized albums have.