Spiritualized’s last album, 2008’s Songs in A&E, came with the story of lead singer Jason Pierce’s near-death experience from serious illness. Listening to the album knowing this, it’s almost as though we’re inside his mind as he lays unconscious on his hospital bed, moving through a series of beautifully and terrifyingly vivid dreams that shift from ecstatic pleasure to frail and death-obsessed. The one-minute ambient introductory track to Sweet Heart Sweet Light, “Huh?,” finds like Pierce waking up from those dreams and realizing that he’s alive and well. This is followed up by the album’s lead single “Hey Jane,” where his new joy for life leads him to proclaim the titular Jane to be the love of his life, but there’s still a paranoid undercurrent as he at one point repeats the thought “Hey Janey when you gonna die?”
This is more or less the pattern for Sweet Heart Sweet Light; Pierce wants to express his love for life, but there’s still a large chunk of his mind possessed by death’s looming presence. All ten of the songs here are grandiose and muscular in the great tradition of Spiritualized songs, doing away entirely with the fragility that cropped up on songs like “Death Take Your Fiddle” from their last album. The songs come packaged with a large string section as standard, generally there are horns involved, and their penchant for using gospel choirs is in effect frequently. For any other band, this sheer amount of instrumentation would see their songs becoming an overloaded mess, but Spiritualized have proven consistently over the years that they know how to use these tools both subtly and for dramatic effect – never are they overbearing. Spiritualized have mastered the use of these instruments to be able to lift a song effortlessly from its standard verse into a magnificent chorus. This ability is used in full force on Sweet Heart Sweet Light, with every song possessing a chorus that you instantly have a primal urge to sing along to. These verse-to-chorus gear shifts are a saving grace for some songs, as their verses can be littered with uninspired lyrics such as “Sometimes I wish that I were dead / ‘cause only the living can feel the pain,” (“Little Girl”) or “My mother said when she got so concerned / don’t play with fire and you’ll never get burned,” (“Too Late”) which become forgivable when a breathtaking passage rises out of nothing just a few seconds later.
Although the instruments stay more or less constant, and the choruses all possess similar grandeur, by no means do these songs sound the same. For both “Too Late” and “Life Is A Problem” the melancholy is carried by the strings, which are used to construct and carry the entire songs, while the other instruments take auxiliary roles for a change. “Get What You Deserve” lacks the anchor of a traditional rhythm section, leaving it floating gloriously out to sea on coalescing waves of piano, guitar feedback, horns and, of course, swathes of violins. The eight-minute “Headin’ For The Top Now” is at full throttle from the get go, with Pierce’s vocals almost drowned out by vicious guitars of the ilk used on Amazing Grace, and with more and more being added to the mix as the song progresses, the effect is so confounding that it leaves the listener to feel their way through it. In “Mary,” a threatening song about an abused woman, the seething, fraught instrumentation mirrors perfectly the acid-tongued delivery of this harsh tale. And, one of the album’s most thrilling musical moments finds the brass ensemble that were last seen careering off into space on Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” coming back around to orbit just in time to join in the fun of the swaggering rock gospel number “I Am What I Am.”
A lot of Sweet Heart Sweet Light seems to find Pierce in an ambiguous place in terms of his relationship with mortality. Whenever he’s singing to someone he seems to be willing them with all his heart to go and experience life and be joyous, but, when the subject is himself, it’s doom and gloom once again. The final two songs on the album, “Life’s A Problem” and “So Long You Pretty Things,” are of the latter category, depicting the ultimate demise of J. Spaceman. “Life’s A Problem” is a blatant tug at the heart strings as Pierce sings that he “won’t get to Heaven,” and as we move into the final song Pierce continues his slow departure, begging “help me Lord, help me Jesus,” as his soul slips away. The song then takes a miraculous turn for its second half as Pierce’s soul leaves his body and starts ascending Heavenward. Everyone’s shown up for the send-off; the strings, the horns, and the gospel singers all rise up to together to previously unscaled heights honor his passing, as Pierce joyously repeats his sign off “So long you pretty things, God save your little souls!” We watch him rise as he sings, he hangs there in mid-air for a second, and then, in a glimmer of silver light, he’s gone.