You’d possibly be forgiven for thinking, upon pressing play on the new Spiritualized album, Everything Was Beautiful, that you’d accidentally put on their 1997 opus Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. If you’re not paying the utmost attention, the unfazed spoken female voice that greets us sounds so achingly familiar, like a friend we’d forgotten we used to have, slightly different but the same. Then, once J Spaceman’s vocal enters a few moments later, even the melody he sings sounds eerily akin to his classic, yearning, “All I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away.”
But then you are grounded, and you realize this is 2022 – 25 years on from that mammoth piece of work. It’s almost startling, though, how little Spaceman — the moniker, of course, for frontman/mastermind Jason Pierce — has changed over the years. His songs, by and large, still reach for the rafters, often in an ever-escalating (and sometimes slow motion) climb to the top. “Always Together With You”, the opening missive here, even features a similar trick to that past milestone: a mantra-like lyric repeated ad infinitum, occasionally broken up by new words, always being piled upon by more and more sound. Pierce is like a sculptor, always caking on more wet clay to what already seemed like a decently finished bust.
One thing Pierce has done over the years to keep his Spiritualized records feeling fresh rather than repeats, is add in new kinds of instrumentation, or focus on a particular stylistic strain or two as opposed to several at once. Their last album, 2018’s And Nothing Hurt (which, by the way, is the second half of the quote from Slaughterhouse Five that this new one’s title completes) showcased a rather gentle side of Pierce’s musicianship. There were still some stratospheric highs, but he was just likely to get close to the mic and drop us into an acidic music box, like on the highlight “Let’s Dance”. But sometimes Pierce can’t help it — even that track ends up growing and growing until it’s a cavalcade of regal horns, bouncy drums, and whirring synths.
That trick of building and building but keeping things contained is something that Pierce does yet again here on Everything Was Beautiful, but the results this time feel a little more exciting and propulsive than the last time around. One issue with never straying too far from a core set of principles is that sometimes the results can feel staid, like when Beach House followed up Depression Cherry — already not a watershed moment for them — with the even less exciting Thank Your Lucky Stars in the same year. Pierce does a good job on Everything Was Beautiful of keeping us guessing while also confirming our giddy expectations.
It doesn’t hurt that these songs are some of the most straight-ahead rocking songs Pierce has put out in some time, possibly since 2008’s underrated Songs in A&E. That album’s grizzled flame is traceable in the mid-paced, blistering “Best Thing You Never Had”, full of scuzzy guitar licks and bristlingly close vocals. “Mainline” has a steady groove and pulse to it, aided by some ethereal coos and bassoon-like synths. Or maybe it is a bassoon; one can never be too sure on a Spiritualized record, and with Pierce reportedly hiring 30 performers and playing over a dozen instruments himself on the album, it can be hard to discern who played what, or what’s synthetic and what’s not.
But that doesn’t matter, much, in the end. When the duck-like stabs come in on “Mainline”, or the electric guitars blend chaotically with voices and cymbals on “The A Song (Laid in Your Arms)”, all that matters is that Pierce still has the goods. He’s still good at creating a very particular kind of sensory overload, a rush that catapults the listener into his dizzying daydream.
A few songs on Everything Was Beautiful do slow things down quite a bit, which can be a nice breather from the sometimes suffocating maelstroms Pierce likes to conjure. “Let It Bleed” has a satisfying and horn-bedecked crest, but it feels so much more languid and organic than much of what’s around it. There’s almost a gospel quality — which shouldn’t be shocking to longtime listeners — to the way the voices combine in the resplendent finish. Album mid-point “Crazy” is perhaps the most surprising track here, with Pierce giving us a full-on country folk song, replete with weeping slides and creaky harmonies. It’s a deeply stunning and simple track, with a druggy half-asleep atmosphere, though it feels a bit out of place.
But organized chaos is something Pierce has down at this point. Everything Was Beautiful is a nice companion to And Nothing Hurt, and is, in fact, an even stronger effort, full of blinding synths and sharp horns and groovy textures, from an outfit known for a very high quality of material. Nothing here quite reaches the fizzy highs of something like “Come Together” or “Hey Jane”, and he can’t quite recapture the slow, sad, and syrupy balladry of past tracks like “Broken Heart”. But he can still kick up quite a storm when he wants to, and though perhaps a bit too streamlined for some fans, this is another fine album in Pierce’s and Spiritualized’s repertoire.