We are privileged to be able to bring you this beast of an essay from Daniel Matthew Varley on one of our favorite bands (more info about Dan at the bottom):
Spiritualized’s 2003 album, Amazing Grace, features a cover photo of a bare outstretched female arm, elbow slightly bent, hand completely open, its fingers limp and arranged not unlike Adam’s in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. The image suggests, if one is even just passingly familiar with Spiritualized’s works’, that this arm is prepared for an injection of drugs into its veins.
Jason Pierce, the sole consistent member of Spiritualized, has never been reserved about the use of narcotics, whether in his lyrics, album packaging or even band merchandise. His 1997 masterpiece, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, came with ‘dosage’ instructions; its cover art unabashedly said “one tablet, 70 min.” To top it off, this is a man who, when in the seminal 1980s pre-shoegaze band Spacemen 3, named an album Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to.
Though, if one were to take a mirror (pun sorta intended) to the arm of Amazing Grace’s album cover in order to double the image, producing two identical arms, it would reveal something different: a person in the midst of religious supplication or prayer. The woman could be reciting the Lord’s Prayer, singing Amazing Grace – just as easily as shooting up.
The twin images of religious transcendence and the same euphoria invoked through controlled substances has been a hallmark of Pierce’s career. The conflated ecstatic connection is not difficult to establish – just take a look at Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, where the Carmelite nun is depicted, as related in her autobiography, with a small angel plunging an iron tipped spear into her heart. As she states, “The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.”
A simple quick glance at the Bernini statue does indeed reveal a holy woman in religious ecstasy, though a modern viewer (and apparently some contemporaries of Bernini) could view the transverberation through the lens of of an ecstatic sexual experience – Teresa’s mouth agape in a moan, her body completely overwhelmed and no longer her own. Taken a step further into more of a contemporary setting, if one were so inclined, an argument could be made that Saint Teresa’s moment of ecstasy reveals elements of a drug induced sublimity – the angel plunging his spear (read: needle) into the heart of Teresa.
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. A cliched phrase for sure, but cliches are cliches for a reason: they contain a good deal of truth. The trio of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll are means of escape, a vehicle, however crude, for temporarily leaving a world of suffering. Spiritualized takes this template that has been cultivated over fifty years from the Rolling Stones to Guns ‘n Roses and adds a refined twist: the explicit search of meaning incorporating religious iconography. Take these elements in toto and you have the pillars of Spiritualized’s musical career: an ability to create secular music that communicates the experience of existential pain while offering a release that approximates nothing less than that heavenly, painful and sweet moment of Teresa’s transverberation.
At his core, Pierce is a traditional rock ‘n roller. Someone with a great appreciation for its form and history, making homages not to just the classic rock cuts of the 70s, but the real early stuff, African-American spirituals, Elvis Presley, call-and-response and the Wall of Sound. From this diverse core of sound he diffuses into different directions. There are moments that could only be described as Albert-Ayers-jazz-through-a-Marshall-stack feedback careening out of control. Other times he’ll employ trumpets, french horns and timpanis, creating grand, aching sounds unlike anything heard in a rock song. Famously, he’s also apt to use thirty person gospel choirs to amplify the sonic impact of his songs, bringing the Spiritual (as a genre) into twenty-first century rock ‘n roll.
On paper, this may seem self-indulgent, delusional (even for a musician). Though such grandiose musical touches are necessary for Pierce. Rather than dwelling of usual pop matters like unrequited love or club braggadocio, Pierce tackles capital-a Ache. Ache is the real heavy stuff – depression, addiction, spiritual yearning and the search for redemption.
Perhaps I’m digging in the wrong musical bins but I haven’t seen too many secular bands take on the search for meaning as seriously as Pierce has using the same type of grandiose musical touches. You could point out the Polyphonic Spree – them of the two dozen-ish person pop choir decked out in selling-flowers-in-an-airport robes creating “spiritual” music for the gods named John, Paul, George and Ringo – but that project (P. Spree) is, despite its outward spiritual-ish appearances, more like that old “I’d Like to Buy A World a Coke” commercial in visual and musical aesthetics than anything remotely passable as a rigorous examination of spirituality.
The spirituality of Polyphonic Spree, and others like them is, however you want to define it, the same hallow spirituality of Eat, Pray Love and its other contemporary New Age-ish spinoffs: an idea that globalizes Cafeteria Catholicism – a dash of eastern asceticism when convenient, a whiff of good Samaritan Christianity there, yoga at Equinox each morning and the upper-middle class financial wherewithal to meet the “other,” while traveling, enabling you to indulge in smug self-realizations while staring into a South African friscalating sunset. Rigorous spirituality – Kierkegaard in a foxhole kind of stuff – is tough to come by in contemporary secular pop music, or contemporary secular culture in general.
“Addiction keeps a person in touch with God…at the very point of the vulnerability is where the surrender takes place—that is where God enters. God comes through the wound.”
While Woodman’s quote resides within a context of addiction, her point is universal: God comes through the wound – just like Saint Teresa’s iron-tipped spear. Anyone who has stared into the abyss, hit rock bottom, had a moment of clarity, etc., picks up what this phrase is putting down: our moment of grace, our spiritual high, however counter-intuitively, coincides with our greatest moment of weakness. The question is, how do we replicate this moment when God comes through the wound? How does one share one’s existential pain in a way that resonates with Your Ache? How do I share that transcendent moment when a good swab of spiritual Neosporin is applied on the Wound so that you are healed as well? While not as elegant as Tolstoy’s “What is Art” essay, I’m proposing somewhat of a crude equation that provides some insight into the artistic aesthetic that, I believe, recreates the search for redemption in which Pierce constantly engages and in the same breath conveys his Ache to us so that we, in turn, find a sense of solace and redemption ourselves:
Despair + Outward Direction + Wall of Sound
= Modern Musical Redemption
Many of these elements are self-evident with Spiritualized – namely the Despair that is explored in its various forms across Pierce’s entire oeuvre. A representative example can be found in “The Ballad of Richie Lee” from Amazing Grace: “My rotten bones full of holes / skin just holds ‘em in / might look like I’m damaged / but the damage is deep within.”
Not exactly a wildly unique sentiment in music, though it does create a nice starting point. You might find a sensitive, aching musician like Elliott Smith writing a line like this, dropping a musical depth charge into the recesses of the Soul. Smith did this well, but there are other elements are work here.
The curious part of the equation, at least in secular pop music, is the idea I’m defining as “outward direction.” Now, the study of aesthetics hasn’t slept on this idea so there is plenty of commentary around it. Here’s the contemporary English philosopher Roger Scruton from his book, Beauty: “Lovers of beauty direct their attention outwards, in search of a meaning and order that brings sense to their lives” (p. 187)
In other words, it’s pretty difficult to find or convey meaning when your turn your gaze inward. For instance, Smith was an amazing musician who wrote painfully beautiful songs about his Ache, but the insularity of the songs always seemed to be an impediment to fully connecting with his audience. Outward direction helps to solve this impasse, though it is phenomenally hard to implement.
In achieving that outward search for meaning that Scruton describes, a key piece of the template that enables Pierce to communicate his Ache to the audience, Pierce uses two vehicles that are commonplace in and of themselves but when combined create something magical: the adoption of religiosity and the explosive sound that continues in the Wagnerian tradition of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Uniting the two gives him this giant phased array that he can point outward, just as Scruton says, in search of redemption in a place that is far from our localized selves.
In terms of religiosity, the frequent invocation of Christian imagery is certainly a curious choice for a secular pop musician. In a recent interview/review piece on Pitchfork, Ryan Dombal quotes Pierce on his use of overtly Christian lyrics in his music. Pierce, who is certainly not a proselytizing born-again or even someone who is open about explicitly practicing says: “As you have a conversation about Jesus, you know you’re talking to him about how it is to be fallible and question yourself and your morals…When I sing, ‘Help me, Jesus,’ you know I’m not asking for help fixing the f$#@ing car.”
Though, it’s not as if the invocation of the words Jesus/Lord/God are off-limits in contemporary secular music. You’ll barely be within the chorus of most songs by the time you hear a Lord here or a God there, whether you’re listening to Ke$ha or Kanye. But when Pierce does it, it’s not a throwaway syllable used to make a point emphatically about something else – he really means as a call to help to a higher power, something larger than himself. It takes the focus away from the individual, the Self, someone whom we know cannot find redemption within themselves. The challenge of this though, is that it takes a certain type of bravery to take an unironic magnification glass to your pain, to ask help unironically from God and then prepare yourself for the “raised eyebrow and very cool smile,” for your moralism, to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace’s essay on Dostoevsky.
Pierce’s 2001 album, Let it Come Down, features an example of how he earnestly uses calls to a higher power as a means of seeking redemption. The penultimate track, “Won’t Get to Heaven (The State I’m In)” has Pierce addressing God, questioning his worthiness against a musical backdrop of his quivering voice, strings, flailing horns, acoustic and electric guitars, synths, a choir and – why the hell not – wind chimes. He sings, “Lord I’m feelin’ so weary / You’d better call a doctor in / And give me one more chance / I won’t get to Heaven the state I’m in.”
Pierce’s confession – a word carefully chosen here – is the confession in its most rigorous sense. Not the the (mostly) bullshit promotional art that followed the wake of the poet Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, poisoning the well of poetry for a good couple of decades, but the hit-your-knees-and-get-it-off-your-chest confession that seeks forgiveness and redemption from God. Pierce’s confession, unlike Bad Confessional Poetry, is a means of shedding the profane self, instead of celebrating it. And just like anyone else who enters into confessional, Pierce jumps into a small room too. His just happens to be a music studio where he seeks release from his guilt and sin.
Another sense of his confession is found in “Home of the Brave”, off Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997): “I don’t even feel it / but Lord how I need it / When I’m not with her / I’m not all myself / Sometimes I have my breakfast / right off a mirror / and sometimes I have it / right out of a bottle / Come on.” A little different here, less about the challenges of a leap of faith and more about the worldly sin and doubt, including the drug use so common in Pierce’s lyrics. Pierce’s oblique reference to cocaine is not unique – think of Metallica’s Master of Puppets “life of death becoming clearer / pain monopoly, ritual misery/ chop your breakfast on a mirror” or for that matter, every other page in a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Cocaine can be a lyrical prop, though, and is sprinkled in lyrics or novels whenever someone wants to lazily add a touch of transgression with one simple word.
This is not the case with Pierce, who sings about narcotics to expand his (and our) understanding of his human condition: a tendency to seek the right end but through the wrong means. We want to end or at least suspend Ache for awhile, and often this leads to the use of drugs, though this path doesn’t come without a price. Here’s “Medication,” off the 1995 album Pure Phase, “Every night I stay up late / and make my state more desperate.” In other words, Pierce is completely aware of the trap inherent in selecting this path towards transcendence, and naturally questions himself and ends up asking for relief in more spiritual matters. After all, the album name “Taking Drugs to Make Music To Take Drugs To,” might come off initially as clever and funny, but it also shows a vicious cycle endemic to drug use.
Phil Spector sought to create Wagnerian, “little symphonies for the kids,” with his famous “Wall of Sound” technique of pop musical recording developed in the 1960’s, which he implemented with acts like The Ronettes. In the studio he produced lush and powerful sounds with stunning sonic impact by recording numerous guitar lines, adding instruments not usually associated with pop like orchestral strings and recording it all in an echo chamber. The way it blended genres was revolutionary, and the Spector influence still runs deep in contemporary pop music. Pierce has been a devotee of the technique for decades, though he engages with it in a slightly different manner. Instead of always using it as an overarching production method that covers the entire song, he often treats it like an instrument at his disposal, a tool to modulate the sonic impact and a means to convey a specific feeling to the listener. The kick of the Wall of Sound, the blast when implemented by Pierce, shocks you into attention.
The motif of quiet/loud isn’t exactly new (see the Pixies), but Pierce’s Wall of Sound blast operates on an entirely different level. The dichotomy is so drawn out, the context so different and so overwhelming that when Pierce’s Wall does hit three or four minutes into a song it really blows your away, literally. The effect is the sonic Come to Jesus moment, something so powerful that it shocks you off your horse and blinds you with that Woodman “God comes through the wound” sense of surrender. In multiple senses of the word, Pierce’s implementation of Wall of Sound is a “hit,” like the all-or-nothing moment seen in Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa where the spear pierces Teresa and she experiences, “the sweetness of excessive pain.” It’s a “hit,” to use narcotic terminology, like when Pierce injects something into himself to find transcendence through the wrong means. It’s a sonic “hit,” that seeks to recreate the feelings of the sublime as experienced by Teresa, a passage out of a world of pain and suffering that Pierce spent four minutes delineating prior in the song.
When Pierce takes the content and earnestness of religious spirituals, profane existential sorrows and funnels it through the structure of the Spector’s Wall of Sound he creates something wildly novel: a vehicle capable of communicating his Ache to a wide audience. We’re along the musical ride with Pierce, identifying with his existential problems, and at some point in the journey he punctures us with the “hit,” overwhelming us sonically. The moment is completely overwhelming, as for three minutes we’ve traveled with Pierce along his road to Damascus and then he suddenly knocks us off our horse, not with a blinding light, but with the power of his music.
The last song off Let it Come Down neatly synthesizes this idea. Over an initial simple chord progression played on an organ, he sings, “Lord help me out / I’d take my life but I’m in doubt / just where my soul will lie / deep in the earth or way up in the sky / Lord, can you hear me when I call?” The lyrics are of course evocative, bring to mind doubt, despair and of course a call for help that goes back to the tradition of African-American spirituals. Yet the moment of beauty, the synthesis that makes Pierce’s music so unparalleled in today’s musical landscape comes at the 3:40 mark, when the choir singing “Lord Can You Hear Me When I Call,” along with Pierce pauses for a moment. Then the tension is released with an explosion of sound, bringing together an assault of electric guitars, cymbal crashes and the choir belting out higher and higher notes as if touching the heavens. It is so terribly awesome that it enters our wound. It overwhelms and fills, as Teresa said, the broken soul.
Most independent rock shows in New York are practically comical in the way that the crowd members engage with the performer: keeping their arms crossed and remaining motionless with the exception of an occasional head nod or a turn to a friend to make an uninspired comparison or an ironic comment. To move around is to be seen as enjoying yourself, and to be seen as enjoying yourself betrays some sort of unwritten code of cool: earnestness is vulnerability, and vulnerability can be trampled upon by the fickle and unpredictable tastes of independent cognoscenti. The pervasive pose is simultaneously affected yet self-preserving at the same time.
When Spiritualized played Terminal 5 in New York City on 8 May 2012, the crowd was also motionless, and it seemed just like another repeat of the same old routine – a catatonic audience moving only to contribute a smatter of applause at the end of the song out of politeness. This was my takeaway until I observed something that refuted this conclusion: mouths that were agape in awe – just as if they were experiencing something like St. Teresa’s transverberation.
The crowd at this concert was not silent and inert based on some sort of affected pose enforced by New York City codes of cool. Rather, they were experiencing something that was well beyond the visceral. As individuals in a crowd with our own unique Ache, seeking solace and redemption, we found someone who could conduct the musical alchemy that provided, at its best moments, an escape from worldly pain and a sense of the otherworldly joy when we found release. Such feelings demand of us full attention, in which this crowd certainly engaged. We found a fellow traveler who has tried to navigate that straight and narrow road, has not just fallen but taken a swan dive off the wagon, who has hit his bottom and now asks for forgiveness not only to the Lord but to us as well. We were quiet and respectful because something – in addition to just the rock ‘n roll – was holy in the air. We were listening to Pierce’s confession, and we were witnesses with him in church.
About the author:
Daniel Matthew Varley lives and works in Manhattan. He recently finished his first co-written screenplay, Uncomfortability, an examination of reality television. At Bowdoin College his poetry won several prizes, including the Academy of American Poets Prize in 2005. In New York he plays guitar in a band, Inherent Vice, and blogs at Disaffected Prep. A cover he made of Spiritualized “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space,” is available at this link.