ARTS

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October 2, 2001

Pierce runs out of cash for drugs, records album

Jason Pierce is a sad sack. But if anyone has a right to be, it's surely him. In the four years since we last heard from Mr. Pierce, he's dismissed all the other members of his renowned band, Spiritualized, and lost his longtime girlfriend, Kate Radley, to that media-whoring dolt Richard Ashcroft, all the while battling a crippling addiction to a seemingly endless array of narcotics. For a time, he seemed destined to fall into the same abyss that claimed Kevin Shields so many years ago.

Thankfully, Jason Pierce is no Kevin Shields. Whereas Shields's depression essentially killed his desire to make music, it seems that Pierce's has only caused him to redouble his dedication to his art. After only one listen to Let It Come Down, it becomes frighteningly apparent that Pierce didn't let a minute of those five years go to waste. It's an album of rare genius, bursting at the seams with brilliant ideas and sheer musical prowess. Every sonic detail has been carefully mapped out and meticulously rendered. Rather than becoming intimidated by many critics' claims that his last album, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, Pierce has been driven toward even grander ambitions. Let It Come Down doesn't even qualify as an ingenious yet cowardly detour, like Radiohead's much-lauded Kid A. It simply takes one look at the glass ceiling imposed by Ladies and smashes it to pieces.

With Let It Come Down, Pierce's vision has become even more cinematic in scope. He frequently employs strings, horns, and entire choirs — anything to realize his lush sound collages. Amazingly, none of it is extraneous or indulgent; each musical gesture sounds like the precise articulation of his will. The album doesn't seem to have been prepared with an eye toward anything but Pierce's personal satisfaction. In other words, he's probably having a hell of a time figuring out how he's going to pull these songs off live without bankrupting Arista and, conversely, the execs at Arista are no doubt wondering what kind of market there is for a symphonic rock album that addresses drug addiction and depression.

Those familiar with the Spiritualized template will almost certainly be shocked to find fully-formed songs populating Let It Come Down — the kind with beginnings and ends, peaks and troughs. In the past, Pierce has had a tendency to veer off into jazz-inspired detours and arbitrarily insert track breaks. I assume these idiosyncrasies were intended to reinforce the idea that his albums are to be absorbed as a whole rather than digested in parts. (The packaging of his last full-length in foil and the naming of a previous album The Perfect Prescription also proves the point.) These songs, however, break sharply with Spiritualized tradition; even as they successfully meld gospel, jazz, blues, and rock, they are able to do so without redundancies or excessive navel-gazing.

Let It Come Down begins with a playful bit of piano. You half expect rockabilly, until Pierce draws the curtains of distorted guitar and agitated drumming. It's an emphatic, thunderous opener, entitled “On Fire," as if to remind us that he hasn't lost his edge. However, things take a decidedly less rocking detour from there. Pierce delivers a trio of songs that exemplify what he does best: namely, classically-informed space rock (Pierce's very own genre). “Do It All Over Again" might just be the most upbeat song Pierce has ever recorded, as he tells his sweetheart that “You gotta hope for the best/and the best looks great now, baby" over a warm bed of strings and harmonica. The next song, “Don't Just Do Something" is the most lyrically-focused composition on the album. Pierce strips away all — well, most — of the excess and lets the personal, pointed words take center stage. And, not surprisingly, we get a very contradictory picture. Just when you think he's wallowing in self-pity (e.g., the line “I'm good for nothing") Pierce follows it up with “Nothing is good enough for me." So much for winning your sympathy. But ultimately the contradiction (one among many) makes for a more believable and human self-portrait. The last in the three-song space rock suite, “Out of Sight," is the most heavily orchestrated of the bunch, sent clear into orbit with symphonic bombast. The term “over the top" is an understatement, and yet I fully intend that description as a compliment. The six-minute epic sounds like the film score he's always flirted with, but was never quite drugged enough to commit to tape (drugged for Pierce being somewhere on the order of nine beers, three blunts, and a couple of speedballs thrown in for good measure).

Fortunately, Pierce doesn't spend the rest of Let It Come Down trying to surmount “Out of Sight." He wisely leaves that song as the album's centerpiece and begins a long but impressively varied descent. He delves back into careening rock once again, replete with police sirens and errant string accompaniments on “The Twelve Steps." (Interestingly, the track features almost the same chord progression as “Electricity," a single from Ladies.) “I Didn't Mean To Hurt You" is Pierce's one-off ballad — as only an emotionally-scorched soul like Pierce could conceive it. The sole track that really feels unnecessarily forced is “Stop Your Crying," which, for some god-awful reason, has also been chosen as the album's lead single. Did you like Blur's “Tender?" Didn't think so. You won't like the Spiritualized version any better. But Pierce redeems himself almost everywhere else. As if to hammer home his evolution, he ends with a remarkable reworking of “Lord Can You Hear Me?," a tune he composed while a member of Spacemen 3. From any other artist, such a stunt would be perceived as arrogant, but in Pierce's case, you know he did it because he was convinced he could make it better.

Strangely, despite the grim subject matter (drugs, failed relationships, etc.), Let It Come Down winds up being not only the most accomplished album in the Spiritualized catalog, but the most optimistic one as well. Pierce has spent an entire career striving to attain something — be it redemption, sobriety, etc. — that is beyond his reach, but never before has he seemed willing to wait for it to come to him in good time. He seems, if not happy, at least content going nowhere. It's a remarkable transformation. His paralyzing apathy no longer appears to be a source of frustration. One even gets the feeling that Pierce has learned to live with his demons. How else to explain a line like “I could lay in bed just like mamma said/Don't just do something, sit around instead" and songs that match that sentiment with their patient elegance.

Plenty of musicians suffer heartbreak and battle drug addictions, but few have been able to tackle them with such intelligence and candor. Let It Come Down pulls no punches. I'm tempted to dub it his crowning achievement, but I'm afraid he'll prove me wrong with his next album. Instead, I'll simply say that, at this point, Pierce's only competition is himself.