As with any Jason Pierce project, it’s impossible to read about the album without hearing how medicine/pharmaceuticals played into the album’s creation. It’s standard practice to give the thematic backstory for the album, but I think at this point in Pierce’s career, it’s irrelevant – his concerns have been perennial and consistent. More relevant, though, is his statement that this LP was inspired by his experiences revisiting his masterpiece Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (an album very near and dear to my heart) in a live setting. This definitely comes through – Sweet Heart is a colossal sounding record; every song seems to look out over vast expanses of space, governed by the drone-rock aesthetic he’s cultivated so well.
The usual Spiritualized pieces are all here – an lush, occasionally grandiose sonic sensibility, songs of lost love, broken hearts, etc etc, but it’s worth noting that this album is a step back from the embrace of pop sensibility found on Songs in A&E – nearly every track stretches beyond the 4 minute mark, and a good handful go on past 6. These seconds aren’t wasted at all, though – Pierce is utterly in control of every note and nuance on this record. It’s a testament to his maturity as both an artist and soundsmith, but it ends up being one of this album’s shortcomings. Though colossal, huge sounding rave-ups like the 9-minute “Hey Jane” sport epic crescendos and a great Lou Reed lyrical feel, but despite the massive quality, it feels oddly sterile. The surging energy is held back by the fact that everything is in its right place – there’s a diminished sense of excitement when we know it’ll all land on the ground in another minute, with nary a nick or scratch on the paint. Pierce’s records are impeccable specimens of musicianship, to be sure, but those epic builds lack the danger of bands like Boredoms or even his older Spacemen 3 material, which comes from feeling like the whole thing could unravel at any second.
This of course doesn’t mean that the song isn’t enjoyable to listen to – Pierce hasn’t ditched his love of pop hooks, he’s just painting on a larger canvas. “Get What You Deserve” is a good example of this – it’s my favorite track on the album, simply because it takes all that’s great about Spiritualized, but grounds them with a spacey, lysergic drone – capturing his present musical ethos with the Spaceman sensibility I love so dearly. “Too Late” is a slice of gospel grandiosity – beautiful, but it’s fairly similar to “Little Girl,” and it’s here where Pierce’s medical backstory becomes relevant – since Songs in A&E, his voice sounds frighteningly weakened, and I’m not sure how will his gospel-blues-pop numbers work in light of it. It’s a little worrying to recall his earlier work, and wonder if he could still convincingly pull off a sneering rocker like his greatest song, “Electricity” or “Come Together.” The frailty of his voice is a jarring contrast to the lush arrangements – though it could be looked at as a fascinating feature of the album, mostly it just makes me kind of worried – on “Headin for the Top Now” (which a great song, recalling Ladies and Gentlemen at its best, all snaky electric guitars and hypnotic grooves), he really sounds like he’s about to expire at the end of the take.
“I Am What I Am” is an awesome electric blues gem, hidden on side 2 – kick ass backup vocals, snarling subterranean drones – it’s here where his weakened, raspy voice is most at home. His patient repetitions are quiet, yet insistent. Overall, “Sweet Heart, Sweet Light” works best when Pierce lets his guitar do most of the talking – the solos here are awesomely knotty, with a vitality that’s definitely not found anywhere else on the record. It’s a little painful reviewing this – I want to love it so badly, because I love Spiritualized, but it’s just not what I used to love about them. The record is polished to an immaculate shine, but I find myself yearning for more moments like “I Am What I Am” – for some bit of muck to bubble up between the notes, bringing a tension into play – Pierce is clearly sick (whether physically or spiritually), and sometimes letting it out is the best therapy.