Seven albums in twenty years: Jason Pierce has been taking things rather easy during his solo career, after leaving behind Pete Kember and the highs of Spacemen 3. The reasons are known. Some are chemical, with his body remaining paralysed for what seemed seconds to him, but eternities to us, and all have been explained generously in numerous interviews that read like confessions of a drug addict. Like Jean Cocteau's “Opium”: the sickness, the addiction, the depression, the insecurity leading to a life in the margins, as a slave to the needle. His habit heavily influenced the drones and partial stillness of “Lazer Guided Melodies” (1992) and, most of all, “Pure Phase” (1995). It was his fierce battle with drugs that gave us the tremendous “Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space” (1997), the masterpiece to which 2001's “Let It Come Down” - with its cryptic lexicon that masked the withdrawal - could be seen as an appendix, its shine, between chaos and clarity, euphoria and collapse. It was the liberation from the chains; it represented clean blood and lifted spirits, giving way to the optimistic “Songs In A&E” (2008). With Jason Pierce clean, his music sounds different: it's a shining light which hides the shadows, it's logically organised, and that benefits his songs. This “Sweet Heart Sweet Light” is basically like “Ladies And Gentlemen…”, but without the heavy emotional problems.
Pierce said that before going into the studio to record his new album, he had been playing “Ladies And Gentlemen…” at several festivals, and revisiting that highlight in his career (quite possibly the highlight of rock in the 90s, along with “Screamadelica”, another record made under the influence of drugs, ecstasy in that case) made him want to try for another album that wouldn't be just another album, but a true masterpiece. This new-born Jason Pierce, with more control over his mind, body and future, wanted to take advantage of his serene mind-set (albeit on medication; the record sleeve, a representation of confusion - within one of the hexagons used to represent chemical symbols - indicates that Pierce's body isn't entirely drug-free. The chemicals continue to be of influence on his work; after all, a clean junkie is still a junkie) and try to climb another mountain top. It wasn't a hard thing to do, it was completely impossible, but the attempt hasn't been in vain.
“Sweet Heart Sweet Light” is free of all the shit and chaos that can be found on many of Spiritualized's previous records. It's by far his most balanced and sparkling work to date, and he hasn't lost any of his trademark sounds. Though it's not as inspired as “Ladies And Gentlemen…” (none of his records will ever again have an intro that tender, or an end that overwhelming, or an interior that solid), but nothing's missing: the blues structures and the spiritual elevation of gospel, the intense rock and the tender ballads. His voice is almost like a whisper, and the lack of evil makes his music - when at its peak - a demonstration of pure love. The further you go into “Sweet Heart Sweet Light”, the bigger its impact. Not because of the risks he's taking, but because of the true affection oozing from songs like “So Long You Pretty Thing”, the closing track - a conventional mid-tempo with piano and orchestra that grows progressively until it reaches a spectacular, hair-raising crescendo. In a different context, this would be a tricky record, playing with emotions, but this is an album that deals with real emotions, something which Jason Pierce has always done.
As an answer to “Ladies And Gentlemen…”, it lacks some bad blood; the confusion those moments of out-of-control jazz made for, the spiralling noise and madness that was unleashed after an instant of intimate spirituality. This is a tamed album, on which Pierce simply reminisces about the ghosts of the blues (“Hey Jane”, with its Southern air and many plugged-in guitars) and embellishes them with gushes of classic rock, monster vocals, a brass section, strings and intelligent keyboards - like on “Freedom”, which could be a tribute to either John Lennon or the classic “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”. “I Am What I Am” is a Dr. John cover, and “Little Girl” is a ballad that could have been by any hard rock band. While it looks like there's no risk anymore, like there's increasingly less 'space' in Spiritualized's rock, during moments like “Get What You Deserve” (with brief appearances of the early 90s symphonies of noise and hypnosis) and lullabies like “Too Late” we're reminded of why Spiritualised is special; and why he's still capable of bringing us to tears. Not as much as before, nor as continuously, but this is the truth: having survived the process of detoxification, “Sweet Heart Sweet Light”, with all its optimism and sheer goodness, is the follow-up “Let It Come Down” really deserved. A follow-up we'd all been waiting for and which, finally, brings closure.