Nearly 30 years have passed since Jason Pierce launched Spiritualized, the more exploratory and astral psychedelic rock outpost of his foundational late-teenage band, Spacemen 3. In the time since, Pierce has used a teeming compendium of vivid musical references—exuberant gospel and shrieking rock, swaying R&B and immersive drone—to chronicle his quest for pharmaceutical, religious, and romantic redemption in a world that seems dead-set against him having any of it. This struggle has facilitated one of the most powerful catalogs in all of modern rock ’n’ roll; here’s a five-song primer to the highest highs and highest lows of Spiritualized, a headliner of Big Ears 2019 and one of the best live bands on the planet.
Spacemen 3’s “Walkin’ With Jesus”
We start with the band Pierce, or J Spaceman, cofounded when he was a teenager in a small English city, Spacemen 3. “Walkin’ with Jesus,” the group’s eventual standard, is primitive and plaintive, a basic mix of blues, drone, gospel, and garage-rock in search of any kind of liberation it can get. “Here comes the sound, the sound of confusion,” Pierce sings in the chorus, that confusion ultimately sublimating into love. More than three decades later, this quest—to find some sweet relief, some redemption—remains at the heart of Pierce’s music. Spiritualized even returns to this song, including this radiant 1997 live recording at Royal Albert Hall.
After less than a decade, Spacemen 3 did not end well, with Pierce and cofounder Peter Kember (that is, Sonic Boom) clashing over relationships, new members, mixes, recording contracts, and solo outlets, including the one that became Spiritualized. This sleepy little masterpiece from Spiritualized’s 1992 debut, Lazer Guided Melodies, is an apt arrow between the projects. Its simple skeleton and elemental lyrics blossom into a musical diorama, where a slow, steady R&B drift accretes over seven minutes into a barely controlled wall of noise and ruptured rhythms. “Lord, shine a light on me,” Pierce sings in a hypnotic loop before hurtling headlong into the dark.
Spiritualized’s “Come Together”
By the time Pierce began to write and record Spiritualized’s masterpiece and third album, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, his life seemed of two halves: He’d lost longtime musical and romantic partner Kate Radley to a fellow rock star, but also he was becoming a bona fide British rock star, empowered by management and a label letting him pursue bigger sounds. How is this one—an apogee of big-budget rock ’n’ roll in the 1990s, full stop—for audacity? Arriving on the heels of an album opener that originally interpolated Elvis lyrics (it’s complicated), “Come Together” lifts a Beatles title and then shoots skyward like a barrage of fireworks, with triumphant horns and burrowing organs and barbed guitars affixed to a swinging rock rhythm. Ladies and Gentlemen makes a mess of the varied pursuits of God, drugs, and love; on the triumphant but tragic “Come Together,” we meet little Johnny, the vaguely autobiographical star who “dulled the pain but killed the joy.” It’s an ecstatic, anguished pursuit of unattainable balance, and it continues to frame Pierce’s music.
Spiritualized’s “So Long You Pretty Thing”
Years earlier, Pierce nearly died from a particularly severe case of double pneumonia, an experience that prompted 2008’s Songs in A&E. And then he almost died again. But four years later, for the resplendent Sweet Heart Sweet Light, he’d turned the experiences into a life lesson about hope and the time we have left. This album-capping duet and co-write with his daughter, then 11, is a modern hymn about the rush of the contemporary world, an anthem about keeping up with everything when all you want is a little comfort. Notice the banjo that mirrors the melody, trading phrases with a twangy electric guitar; Pierce, like a generation of British rock stars before him, found sustaining inspiration in the roots music of the United States, particularly the blues and gospel. Here, he summons a half-dozen different traditions, from the strains of a symphony to the lift of a choir, in search of the same salvation that animated so much of his career. (Also, live versions of this one are always worth a listen.)
Spiritualized’s “On the Sunshine”
Pierce, a studio perfectionist, recorded 2018’s And Nothing Hurt largely by himself, piecing together Spiritualized’s eighth album in his bedroom with a laptop. And in the run-up to the record, he often talked about his age, or about learning what rock ’n’ roll made by someone well into his 50s should sound like. Well, this works: A blistering powerhouse of a tune, “On the Sunshine” sounds live and urgent, an emphatic denouncement of taking everything so seriously from someone who has spent a career famously taking every sound very seriously. He even wants us to celebrate our finest years “and the music of the spheres.” Beautiful, delirious, and kind of happy, “On the Sunshine” is the sound of Pierce stepping into the light, smiling as he blinks. It also sounds like it’s readymade for the stage, a paroxysm of good feeling meant to be shared.