Jason Pierce, the singer-songwriter responsible for Spiritualized, claims that his funereal new album was largely composed before the bout of life-threatening pneumonia he suffered in 2005. The claim sounds credible, especially because the album traffics in Pierce’s typical themes: addiction, withdrawal and recovery, and agonies and ecstasies both physical and spiritual. But listening to Songs in A&E, which is named for the British equivalent of the ER, it’s also sometimes hard to believe. The record’s focus on matters of life and death is deepened by Pierce’s felt knowledge of the subject, and the overall effect is eerily prescient. Whether you’re walking toward or running away from the grave (hey, that’s life), the themes Pierce addresses here will resonate.
If some of the topics are a little threadbare in Pierce’s hands (the heroin references frankly no longer titillate), he’s also still typically able to wring pathos from most. And he certainly sounds like a man back from the dead. His voice was once graceful and clear—a bolt of sunlight through the thunderheads of his dense arrangements. It’s more mortal and craggy now, riddled with smoke and quavering under the weight of some ambitious vocal melodies. The clear touchstone is Lou Reed, which also makes a symbolic sort of sense. Reed was always a lot cooler than Pierce, but his hard living brought him to a similar world-weariness; Pierce is a new-millennium depressive heir to Reed’s narcotic throne.
Interestingly, a lot of the proper songs here are pretty short, at least for Spiritualized, though Pierce’s knack for building tension is still on display. Compositions like lead single “Soul on Fire” and “You Lie You Cheat” integrate elements of soulful gospel and ear-ringing shoegazer and work themselves economically into instrumental freakouts in under four minutes. Album centerpiece “Baby I’m Just a Fool” is the exception that proves the rule, coasting in on staccato acoustic guitar and marimba before gradually blossoming into five minutes of white-hot noise. A set of largely uplifting and unobtrusive instrumentals help the album flow together, unifying a song cycle that covers a surprisingly wide swath of territory.
Taken as a whole, Songs in A&E is probably the best thing that Pierce has done since Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space. It runs a little long, and it doesn’t break much new thematic ground, but the album’s great depth of feeling and its sure-footed execution outshine such minor problems.