The Ambition Condition
Pierce began life in infamous drug-rock reprobates Spacemen 3, a band who fused together numerous musical strains (garage-rock, gospel, blues, psychedelia, ethnomusical drone, krautrock) into a singular, rhythmic, repetitious trance state. With Spiritualized, Pierce, suitably enough, focused more on the spiritualist notions of his musical ambition: drawing increasing influence from gospel and choral musics, and the zoned-out, interpretive states of free-jazz and cosmic-jazz.
Ladies and Gentlemen uses different modes, different genres, to summon a singular (altered) state of psychedelic grandeur; its massive, shifting walls of noise-guitar, bleating jazzed-out horn honk, transient instrumental passages, and evocations of everyone from Elvis Presley to the Stooges to Pachelbel all, somehow, of the same sense of wondrous spirit. It's an album of 12 wholly different songs that unites perfectly.
Little J is Sad and F**ked
The third Spiritualized album was made in a period of turmoil. Pierce's girlfriend —and Spiritualized keyboardist— Kate Radley had secretly married Richard Ashcroft of the Verve, and, in his despair, Pierce slid from drug-enthusiast into drug-addict. Great art doesn't have to come from suffering, but oftentimes it helps.
Of course, all Spiritualized records are filled with lyrical riffs on drug-taking; so Ladies and Gentlemen's litany of on-the-slow nods ("the tracks of time, these tracks of mine/Little J is occupied," or "sometimes have my breakfast right off of a mirror," or, most notably, "there's a hole in my arm where all the money goes") are par for the discographical course. But the tender sense of heartbreak present on the LP's two best cuts is unique to this masterful work.
"Broken Heart" is the obvious one; six minutes of stately, tear-shedding, timeless orchestral balladry wearing its title on its thematic sleeve; Pierce sadly, tenderly croaking "I'm crying all the time/I have to keep it covered up with a smile/And I'll keep on moving on for a while/But I have a broken heart." As in his most effecting moments, the thrill, the frisson here is hearing the contrast between the gloriously-played string arrangements and his bruised, nearly off-key singing; the pained humanity in his voice having a simplicity that counters the music's ambition.
I Can't Help Falling in Love with You
All of this —the naked ambition, the unadorned heartache, the orchestral spectacle, the creaky singing, the gathering of an artistic force that goes beyond mere band, or mere record, but becomes a truly transcendent work— is displayed on the album's opening gambit, title track, and far-and-away best song. In fact, it's hardly hyperbole to state that "Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space" is one of the most beautiful lovesongs ever written.
Taking place in a fantastical 'space' of Pierce's own imagining ("All my time until I die/We'll float in space, just you and I"), the song's pained, half-suicidal, lovelorned lyrics recall, for me, the central image of Haruki Murakami's novel Sputnik Sweetheart, where its characters are all solitary satellites, hurtling through space in isolation, paths crossing only ever so briefly. Love may be magical, but it is fleeting; loneliness is, however, forever.
The song's repeated mantras are laid over each other in ever-escalating, cascading rounds, building up into a complex, intricate wall-of-sound in which arpeggiating string parts, tremolo'd guitar licks, electronic oscillations, timpani drums, dulcimer, and bells clang in an almighty symphony. It's only 221 seconds long, but it seems impossibly epic; a whole word unto itself. If Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space was just its title-track, it'd be wholly, utterly perfect. As it stands, all 70 sprawling minutes of it, it's still pretty close.
Record Label: Dedicated
Release Date: 16 June 1997