and nothing hurt
Throughout his entire thirty year career, Jason Pierce has dealt in transcendence. Since his debut as Spiritualized in the early 90’s, he’s forged a lyrical matrix diagramming the connection between drugs, religion and romantic love and their implicit promise to deliver us from the most bottomless of human hurts. He’s explored these themes by pushing the pillars of rock and roll tradition--blues, gospel, soul--to their outer limits through both lavish orchestrations and noise-drenched freakouts. “All I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away,” he famously sang on the opening lines of his magnum opus, 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, before attempting to fill the void with chemicals and cacophony on a 70-minute space rock odyssey.
It’s probably no coincidence that Pierce was recording And Nothing Hurt, his latest (and potentially last) album as Spiritualized, during a series of celebrated twentieth anniversary gigs for Ladies and Gentlemen, considering it plays like a belated rejoinder to that defining work. On folksy, banjo-lead opener “A Perfect Miracle” he seems to have found contentment at last through a series of dewy-eyed pledges to write messages in the stars and conduct choirs of birds to serenade his chosen one. But as the arrangement billows romantically with strings, timpani and an angelic choir, reality comes crashing in: “Darling you know I’m sorry / I won’t get to see you today / My mind is a mess, and I’m needing you less / Give me a call in a little while.” It’s vicious, hilarious and heartbreaking: an acknowledgement that his own nature is what renders him incapable of holding onto the very love that, at one point, his survival seemingly depended on.
This establishes the merits of And Nothing Hurt in relation to the rest of Pierce’s catalog pretty early on. In a sense, it’s the most focused effort of his career, long on chiseled melodies and boasting a comparatively adult lyrical perspective. It’s not so much that he’s forsaken his persona as some permanently wasted romantic, but he’s never been so willing to capitalize on it, or its changing significance in the throes of middle age, to often hilarious and poignant effect. On the swaying soul of first single “I’m Your Man,” Pierce swears of his capacity to be “dependable all down the line” only to contradict himself over a surge of Stax-indebted horns on the chorus: “If you want wasted, loaded, permanently folded / Doing the best that he can / I’m your man.” He sounds downright paternal on “Here it Comes (The Road) Let’s Go” as he advises an unidentified companion to check their gas and watch for speed traps, even if their ultimate destination is to “get stoned all through the night” at his house. This is James Murphy-level self-awareness and it results in some of the most approachable songs of Pierce’s career.
The question is whether this newfound maturity outweighs what we lose in the long run; part of the thrill on any Spiritualized record is the sense of abandon in Pierce’s no-holds-barred experimentation. And Nothing Hurt is hardly a small record; several arrangements possess the same exquisite overkill found on earlier albums: the gorgeous string section on “Damaged” is a particular highlight, and twin rave-ups “On the Sunshine” and “The Morning After” pack plenty of satisfying in-the-red wallop. But these entries feel more self-contained, and though it’s easy to admire Pierce’s newfound discipline, it’s hard not to miss some of his previous untidy sprawl. Still, there is a beautiful sense of closure to And Nothing Hurt. Even if it’s not the last Spiritualized record, it feels like the conclusion of an epic chapter in the story.