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Definitive Albums: Spacemen 3 'Playing with Fire' (1989)

Come Down Softly, Slowly, Sadly, Spiritually

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Spacemen 3 'Playing with Fire'

Spacemen 3 'Playing with Fire'

Fire

Taking Drugs to Make Music to See God To

In the middle of a hallucinatory episode, it's not uncommon for someone —be they suffering from mental illness, fever, or being doped up to their eyeballs — to claim they saw God, saw infinity, saw eternity. That they, for a second, peered into the light of a deity.

Infamous English noiseniks Spacemen 3 weren't exactly shy about their drug habits; they were, after all, the band that lived by the mantra 'taking drugs to make music to take drugs to.' And Jason 'Spaceman' Pierce, the more sensitive of their twin sages —the shy foil to blustering partner-in-crime Pete 'Sonic Boom' Kember&mdash seems to have seen God in some hallucinatory state. Or, even, seen God in the drugs themselves.

Spacemen 3 mined the blues and gospel for their licks, for their purity, for their spirituality, mixing them with garage-rock and spaced-out psychedelia to create a dopehead sound all their own. But, they rewired the messages inherent in such 'soul' music. When they embraced ecstatic gospel fervor and cast their eyes upwards, heading towards heaven, they were conveying the rush; when they cried a tortured blues, slipping towards hell, they were lost in the swallowing shadows of comedown.

It was in this world —a church of rock'n'roll where transubstantiation was tapping a vein— that Pierce came upon "Lord, Can You Hear Me?", as utterly human a musical lament as any man ever penned. With lyrics resembling an unanswered prayer —"Lord, help me out/I'd take my life, but I'm in doubt"— the song is a man starting down mortality; a blues tinged with the empty ache of a crisis of faith.

Lennon/McCartney

In many ways, it's almost shocking to hear a song so pure, so classic —a stark ballad dappled with delay guitar, organ drone, and saxophone coos— on an album by a band just as fond as blasting out two-chord wig-outs at volumes that literally pound on your eardrums. But that was what made —what has made— Spacemen 3 such an enduring concern. Whenever someone tries to reduce them to a caricature, dares dismiss them as Velvets/Stooges/Suicide acolytes shooting heroin to be like their heroes, there's a conflicting voice coming from within the band themselves; a tender, honest, earnest beauty contrasting against their considered, quoting, rock-disciples hedonism.

Taking that fragmenting, dissenting divide to its logical limit, the Spacemen 3 partnership wouldn't last much longer than Playing with Fire, the LP that gave the world "Lord, Can You Hear Me?" and forever cemented the band's legacy for future generations. Where previous albums —including 1987's much-loved Perfect Prescription— had been co-billed to Kember/Pierce, as partnership, by Playing with Fire the divide in the songwriting credits stood stark in black and white. These were either Pierce or Kember songs.

Famously, the relationship between the pair sank to the point that 1991's Recurring was divided literally in half: Kember Side A, Pierce Side B. But, here, the creative tension and constant competition between them pushed Spacemen 3 into regal realms; Kember cuts like "How Does It Feel?" and "Let Me Down Gently" working in an eerie, bloodless psychedelia that sounds as if it's floating in space. So to speak.

In contrast, Pierce submits songs —"So Hot (Wash Away All of My Tears)," "Come Down Softly to My Soul"— steeped in weeping. This taints the album with an inescapable sense of sadness; no matter how viciously they kick out the jams in "Revolution" or "Suicide," nothing can make Playing with Fire feel like a rock'n'roll record. It's too sad, too aching, too far gone; it's somewhere behind the third eye, looking for God, seeing God, and yet finding nothing.

Record Label: Fire
Release Date: February, 1989

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