Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce should not be with us. After nearly 30 years in the music industry, the man has gone through so many trials and tribulations that it really is a surprise for him to be alive, nevermind kicking. Heroin addiction, suicidal despair and and cancer are tough to manage on their own, but encountering all three in such a short space is dumbfounding. Yet through all this, he’s still managed to produce some truly staggeringly good work. With Spaceman 3, you’ve got The Perfect Prescription and Playing With Fire. With Spiritualized, you’ve got Lazer Guided Melodies and his true opus, 1997’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space.
Pierce is a man who can take pain, melody and a stupefying amount of drugs and somehow create works which can best be described, without hyperbole, as transcendent. The drawback to achieving such heights is that as time goes on, traversing different interpretations of paths you’ve already traveled loses some of its power. That’s definitely been the case with Spiritualized, who’ve spent the better part of twenty years in the shadow of their crowning glory. But that still hasn’t stopped them from trying. Now, six years and a cancer treatment after their last album, they’ve delivered And Nothing Hurt, a delicate and bombastic exploration into sorrow, anguish and optimism.
Regardless of the quality of the album, special commendation must be given to its creator for his commitment. The man had an album’s worth of songs that he wanted to record and no budget to do it. Rather than clip his vision and release a neutered rendition, he attempted the Herculean task of recording a truly expansive and epic soundscape in his bedroom on his laptop. Now on the one hand, given the ready ubiquity of ProTools and orchestral software, this does mean a little less than it did 10 years ago. But even with an inattentive glance at this collection, its breadth and ambition beggars belief. The thesis of Spiritualized has always been a more is more approach; why only have nine layers of glockenspiel, when you could you could have sixteen and harpsichord? These songs genuinely seem to encompass the monumental purview of the artist. It sounds like the sort of material that someone like Scott Walker, Brian Wilson or any of the other ’60s orchestral popper would have put out. It’s colourful, dense and without compromise. Listen to the ‘Let It Be’ reminiscent solo that makes up the middle 8 of ‘I’m Your Man’ or the delicate grandeur of ‘The Prize’. This is a handcrafted piece made with love, devotion, and disregard for the easy way out.
Given that so much of what’s here is deliberate, that title poses so many questions. Taking its cue from Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five, something doesn’t quite gel with that name. A core part of Pierce’s lyricism is that of lasting pain and survival. Look no further than a track like ‘Broken Heart’ from the Ladies and Gentlemen LP for an example. So to deny this suffering seems very insincere at odds with what we’ve come to expect from this group. But as you delve further into these pieces, you come to realise that there is an ironic streak here which Vonnegut would have deeply appreciated. Vast swathes of melancholy and desperation are foundations on which this collection stands.
‘Sail On Through’ is a song about longing and the acceptance that love sometimes won’t always win the day. We are damaged people and that trauma will weigh us down and stop us from getting finding our peace. ‘Damaged’ wallows in the pain of heartbreak and the existential disorientation that follows. While ‘The Morning After’, on a lighter note, deals with contemporary alienation, societal breakdown, and suicide. There is a darkness here that is undeniable, but crucially, there are glimmers of light.
The album seems to revel in simple pleasures nestled in amongst the void. The protagonist of ‘Let’s Dance’ finds such a true and honest joy in the fact that the Big Star’s “September Girls” is on the radio while the object of their eye leaves them. ‘I’m Your Man’ asks its subject to accept someone who is flawed yet deeply devoted. ‘A Perfect Miracle’ details all the wonderful things that one can wish they could do for the person they love, even if that relationship has concluded. There is kindness and sweetness here and that is essential because it demonstrates a level of nuance that its Hallmark-y title would imply. At no point in time does nothing hurt, but nor does everything. In the despair, there exists a twinge of hope. The narrator of ‘Sail On Through’ can make it through if they can get past what holds them back. By ignoring simple mantras that promise a painless existence and by facing our problems head-on, we can maybe achieve something more meaningful; there is an honesty and power in that.
A big part of that power though is derived from Jason’s voice. This artist, with roughly three decades under his belt in this field, still sounds like he can barely hold a tune. Without technicality or theatrics to fall back on, he has to unearth the emotion of those words and bring them to the fore. This works time and time again. As an emotional tool, it manages to take lyrics which could veer into schmaltz and imbue a purity and credibility. They’re all part of the mood of this LP and if there’s one thing that this band does it is mood.
And Nothing Hurt feels simultaneously like a deep and heartfelt hug and rousing party. There’s so much going on at all times that you have to let it wash over you and hope that it all makes sense at the end. Yet, there is that personal touch, the humanity that ensures that it will work out by the time we cross that finish line. ‘A Perfect Miracle’ is a great example of the macro/micro duality of this sound. This vast array of symphonic instruments fly all around while multiple harmonies bombard you from every side. Yet in amongst this chaos, it’s a gently plucked ukulele that stands out the most. The exquisite intricacy of this creates what is easily the best song here and one the best he’s ever written. But there are more options available too. ‘Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go’ has these delightful horns and big guitars that have such a warmth and humanity to them. When that sax drops in the final moments you’ll swear you’ve heard the true magic. “Let’s Dance” has this wounded sensibility that eases you in and rewards with some delightful gospel and a kaleidoscopic finale. ‘Damaged’ keeps its guard up for the right amount of time; trickles of care trickle in before sealing them back up. But on the other end, it’s not all comfort and snuggly jumpers, these people know how to make some serious noise. ‘The Morning After’ and ‘On The Sunshine’ are absolute barnstormers. Great slices of maximalist psychedelia that keep a pulse running through what could have become a rather languid album.
Truthfully, there isn’t much here that Jason hasn’t attempted in the past. The spectre of Ladies and Gentlemen still looms large and colours pretty much every number here. But it’s done so well and with such verve that it seems intrinsically wrong to deny it the plaudits it deserves. This is a delightful, heartwarming and special LP. It manages to create colossal soundscapes and yet never lose sight of the beating heart at the centre. This is the kind of release that makes you overjoyed that its creator has still decided to keep on releasing music. But if Pierce was to call it quits here, it’s ok because this was beautiful and only hurt as much as it needed to. Will Murphy