Jason Pierce and co. return to space on transcendent sequel to 2019’s And Nothing Hurt
Four years after And Nothing Hurt, Jason Pierce has released his second Spiritualized album based on the same set of demos — Everything Was Beautiful.
The release order inverts a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, where an ironic headstone for Billy Pilgrim, the horror-experiencing man untethered by linear time, reads “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
Pierce’s original plan was to release a double LP under that title, but his label, Fat Possum, advised against the idea.
Album: Everything Was Beautiful
Label: Fat Possum
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
With little money after recording demos with Youth, Pierce painstakingly built And Nothing Hurt mostly at home, playing the instruments he could, adding orchestration he couldn’t afford through samples, then hiring additional players to fill in the gaps.
In the end, the decision to split the project into two albums was good for Pierce’s focus.
“If I was working within this huge piece of work, I’d probably still be doing it. I find that very unhealthy .. .It’s just music for Christ’s sake!,” he told the Sun.
With no other alternative, Pierce made the most of the pandemic’s forced solitude. He was allowed more time to get Everything Was Beautiful where he wanted it, applying what he’d learned in putting together its predecessor (which he’d learned ProTools for).
It’s inaccurate to refer to And Nothing Hurt as restrained, given all of the trademark Spiritualized elements (psychedelia, garage, gospel and bits of ecstatic cacophony) were there.
That said, Everything Was Beautiful is more immersively layered and detailed, a 70mm widescreen follow-up to And Nothing Hurt, not just with instruments, but sound effects like the beeping that sounds like Morse code from a NASA transmission at the start of album opener “Always Together With You” and the train sounds in “The Mainline Song” (grabbed by Pierce during a 20-minute wait for a train to get through a crossing on his way out of Los Angeles).
Pierce even utilized small bells that he was able to get out of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which had existed from 1570 until its closure five years ago. The foundry’s credits now thus include the Liberty Bell, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and, yes, Everything Was Beautiful.
In the last couple decades, Pierce has survived two separate brushes with his own mortality. At one point, the years of living reflected in Spacemen 3’s album title Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To caught up to him. He faced the prospect of liver failure, but therapeutic drugs saved him. There’s no shortage of irony that the old album title took on a different literal meaning.
And that wasn’t the biggest scare as what came before — a 2005 bout of double pneumonia that left him intensive care, stopped his heart twice and had his loved ones preparing for the worst-case scenario.
If brushes with his own mortality haven’t changed Pierce’s music in obvious ways, the humanity that’s been there feels more resonant since. And if he hasn’t seen what Billy Pilgrim (or Vonnegut himself) did, he’s been through some things.
Pierce’s lyrics have long dealt in a blend of the earthbound with the spiritual and celestial. The title of Spiritualized’s classic 1997 album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space wasn’t just a drug reference, though it was unquestionably a drug album.
While not an overt sequel to Ladies and Gentlemen, Pierce throws in some nods to it, both in its medication-themed packaging and how the album begins.
Whereas the 1997 album opened with then-band member Kate Radley spoke the album title. Here, Pierce’s daughter Poppy (credited as P. Spaceman), a frontline worker for Britain’s National Health Service, gets the honors.
VIDEO: Spiritualized “The Mainline Song”
“Always Together With You” builds into a devotional love song, where he vows to be anything his partner needs — from a radio to a rocket ship to a silver moon to a universe.
The song dates back to a 2014 compilation — The Space Project, which Pierce wasn’t thrilled with, saying he did a song for it because he needed the money. It turned out that he liked what he came up with back then to build on its relatively low-fi origins. It gets fleshed out with choral vocals and layers of sound that show Phil Spector productions influenced him along the way.
Speaking of spotting influences, the train sounds and bass harmonica on “The Mainline Song” offer echoing hints of Pet Sounds. The track itself, about an ethereally lovely night on the town and enjoying the quiet at the end of it, floats along a sea of hushed vocals not atop the mix. Driving to its conclusion, it’s an ethereal ride even if you’re indulging in nothing stronger than tea.
“Let It Bleed (For Iggy)” doesn’t sound like any of the contents from the album contained under Mick Rock’s classic Raw Power cover photo of the ever-intense Iggy Pop staring menacingly through his makeup in shiny pants and (surprise) no shirt.
Instead, it’s another example of the quiet-then-loud dynamic Pierce has been known to traffic in, with the verses slowed-down, drawled soul with strings before the guitars and organ turn up the volume, joined by the chorus. It’s a tribute to creative inspiration, which Iggy was to a young Pierce when Raw Power was the only album he had for a period of months.
Sometimes, devotion isn’t enough. “Crazy”, which also dates back several years, is a duet with Nikki Lane, who co-wrote the song with Pierce on tour and released it as “All Messed Up” on her 2014 album All Or Nothin’. It takes a drawled, swaying trip through the country, pedal steel twang dripping over a love in peril.
“Best Thing You Never Had (The D Song) drives along, throws multiple elements into the mix– emphatic horns, choral vocals, propulsive bass and distorted guitar squall. Pierce may be singing “Gonna be a long way down,” but the song stays on groove, no comedown, only a fadeaway.
Everything Was Beautiful is definitely made for a good pair of headphones so that the different elements can strike you each time you hear it (Pierce alone played 16 different instruments). Produced mostly by Pierce, it holds together well, especially for an album recorded at 11 different studios.
One of the album’s highlights — “The A Song (Laid In Your Arms)” — throws many of the band’s trademark elements (and indeed elements going back to his J. Spaceman contributions to Spacemen 3) into widescreen overdrive. Loads of glorious feedback threaten to take the song off the rails, but it holds together over the groove until it explodes into a cacophonous wall of noise over the last minute. It seems designed to blow back listeners not just at home, but at venues when the band began its first post-pandemic tour at the end of March.
The comedown arrives with closer “I’m Coming Home Again”, which feels as if it’s going to simmer, but never boil over most of its almost 10-minute runtime. But the bubbling rises through the elegiac feel, making it a well-chosen closer.
If Pierce has been the lone constant over the band’s 30-plus year existence (albeit with a lot of contributors who’ve been involved for at least 20 years at this point), his palette contains a lot of the same colors. Here, it’s the gospel-inspired choral vocals, the lyrical references both drug and biblical and that loud-quiet dynamic (albeit in more of a slow build).
At this point, Pierce seems content not to stray too far afield. It’s not as if listeners are at risk of hearing J. Spaceman through a vocoder over a batch of EDM beats from Sweden.
Still, that palette has had a lot of options on it over the years. As a writer, Pierce has a knack for turning them into plenty of transporting moments — beauty in the din, melody in the drone. This time, it’s in service of an album that, if not Ladies and Gentlemen, is still top tier Spiritualized.
If Everything Was Beautiful doesn’t break new ground, it just shows that Pierce is still ever the sonic craftsman who can find plenty of life in familiar, fertile ground with an album that lives up to its title in the present tense, no irony required.