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Music Reviews

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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Songs in A&E

Rating: 8.6/10 ?

June 3, 2008
Ask anyone who has been and he or she will tell you that being in a hospital is terrifying. No one feels as if they belong in an emergency ward; it acts too much like an actual purgatory, a deep trench that requires strength you don't have and a draining amount of willpower to claw your way out of. Hooked to IVs and blood bags, you're in danger of losing your self-reliance, but when you begin the climb back up to the surface, the healing process begins. The perspectives you once had shift to a higher ground, a deeper strength is found, and your goals adjust to the promise of a second chance.

Much has changed in the Americas since Spiritualized released their last album, Amazing Grace, five years ago. We've seen a hurricane that brought one of the nation's most iconic and beloved cities to ruins, the meteoric rise of a political phenomenon in Barack Obama, and after half a century a long-awaited, if ultimately futile, changing of the guard in Cuba. Yet you might have to forgive Jason Pierce, known to the true fans as J. Spaceman, for staring at you blankly if you bring any of this up in conversation with him. Pierce spent a majority of the last five years recovering from tremendously serious cases of periorbital cellulitus and bilateral pneumonia, spending weeks on end in a London hospital and watching his weight dwindle down to nearly one-hundred pounds.

Pierce's songs have always had a dimension of grandeur, often self-centered and seeking comfort, wondering why life is required to be as imposing and impossible as it is. On Songs in A&E, the Spiritualized sound remains the same, but the message has changed. "I know you think I'm staggering," says Pierce in the album's closing third, "but lately I've been staggering back home." After an appointment with mortality that saw Pierce at death's door and needing to be revived by doctors not once but twice, the songs on A&E - which stands for "Accident & Emergency" - document his return from the brink of death to physical and spiritual renewal, and they do so in beautiful and inspiring fashion.

The album opens with the delirious and joyful haze of "Sweet Talk." The track's elevating orchestrics, coupled with choruses of soothing and angelic voices, suggest an image of a man saved from oblivion - in a white room, remaining calm and euphoric in a sedated daze while those around him scurry around tirelessly to keep him alive. When the morphine wears off, however, the delirium is replaced four minutes later by the dread of "Death Take Your Fiddle"; our hero's assisted breathing is heard loudly and clearly through the duration of the track, illustrating the trauma and solitude of the recovery process that culminates in the Exile On Main St.-esque jubilation of "I Gotta Fire," capturing the ultimate revival and rebirth.

The album's climax comes clearly with "Soul on Fire," a touching tribute to the love of our hero's life that saw him through disaster. "You were born on a black day/ Shot through with starlight," he professes, using Brian Wilson and Tony Asher's tried and transcendent method of turning an initially bleak opening line (ala "God Only Knows," "I may not always love you") into a pledge of love and enchantment.

While Spiritualized's output up until now has, usually in the most flattering way possible, been labeled as self-indulgent, Pierce sounds more in love with life than J. Spaceman on Songs in A&E. "I've got a hurricane inside my veins/ And I want to stay forever," he says on "Soul on Fire," and the entire album is littered with sparks of hope and moments of atonement. Immediately following the fiery arraignment of "You Lie You Cheat" is the charming, honest apology of "Baby I'm Just A Fool," and "Borrowed Your Gun" plays like a post-modern retelling of the story of the prodigal son before the final, subdued kiss on the forehead of "Goodnight Goodnight."

I don't mean to posit that we should be glad that Jason Pierce encountered multiple near-death experiences, but if Songs in A&E's stirring and honest power is the end result, there is undeniably some good to be found in the aftermath of J. Spaceman's fight to live again. Spiritualized have always possessed an impressive grandeur, but on this album it is grandeur with a purpose - Songs in A&E is the sound of healing.

Reviewed by Dave Toropov
Introduced to music in the womb with a pair of headphones on his mother's stomach, Dave Toropov has yet to recover the experience. A writer based in Boston and New York, he has also written for Prefix Magazine and What Was It Anyway, and is the maintainer of the "Middleclass Haunt" blog.

See other reviews by Dave Toropov



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