Spiritualized’s ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ remains their masterpiece – a look back
Jason Pierce has never lacked scope. Spiritualized's first four albums are all doubles, each one more grander than the last, with Pierce's love of classic pop, rock and soul melting into the droney, druggy, interstellar sound he's been working in since his Spacemen 3 days. All four records are great, but 1997's Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space is where ambition, inspiration and beautiful sadness come together perfectly.
It's kind of a miracle it holds together as perfectly as it does, or that it even was finished at all. The previous album, Pure Phase, released during a brief period when Pierce changed the name of the group to Spiritualized Electric Mainline, was a notoriously difficult birth, involving two separate mixes of the album that he decided needed to be placed on top of each other, making for a laborious post-production process. With a solid, road-tested lineup of the band in place, Pierce began work on the next album right after the release of Pure Phase, with hopes of knocking it out quickly. That turned into two years worth of recording, involving seven studios in five cities (Bath, London, Memphis, New York and Los Angeles), nearly as many producers and engineers, the Balanescu Quartet, The London Community Gospel Choir and New Orleans icon Dr. John.
On top of all that, Pierce was bottoming out, personally, deep in the throes of heroin addiction and on the losing side of a love triangle -- girlfriend and Spiritualized keyboardist Kate Radley left him to marry The Verve's Richard Ashcroft in 1995. (Amazingly word of their nuptials didn't become public knowledge for two years and she continued to be a member of Spiritualized through the making of the album). Heartbreak, drugs and religion are the holy trinity on Ladies & Gentlemen. The first line of the the album's opening title track is "All I want in life's a little bit of love to take the pain away," while the first line of the epic closing track "Cop Shoot Cop" is "There's a hole in my arm where all the money goes" and in between we get variations on the themes with "I Think I'm in Love," "Stay with Me," "Broken Heart," and "No God Only Religion."
Pierce has said that the album's lyrics aren't actually about Radley, but lines like "When I'm not with her, I'm not all myself / Sometimes have my breakfast right off of a mirror" (from "Home of the Brave") beg otherwise, and the sadness that seeps into all four sides of the album is palpable. This is a record where Sadness feels like the primary member, the primary instrument, and it is played beautifully. It's a blanket that Pierce wraps around himself to stay warm and safe and it comforts the listener too.
Despite all the difficult mojo surrounding the album and the soul-baring lyrics, Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space is not a bummer. Quite the opposite. The melodies are warm and soulful, and the performances, arrangements, and deeply layered production crackle with energy. This is an amazing sounding album that feels bracingly alive, from the title track -- which incorporates Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love" * -- to the massive psych-blues numbers "Come Together" and "Electricity," zero gravity ballads/lullabies ("Stay with Me," "Cool Waves"), wry orchestral pop songs ("Think I'm in Love") and some songs that seem a little bit of all combined ("All of My Thoughts"). Then there's the mind-blowing "Cop Shoot Cop" which travels from sublime blues to noise freakout and back, while quoting John Prine's "Sam Stone," across 17 electrifying minutes.
(*The Elvis Presley Estate initially denied use of the song, forcing Spiritualized to record a different part for the song at the last minute for the album's initial release. The original version was restored in 2009.)
"I like Pure Phase the best of these four records," Pierce says now, "but people still say Ladies and Gentlemen is where everything kind of came together. I’m still astounded by both records, where they don’t let up. There’s no kind of curfew. Or no 'you can’t stay on that section for that length of time.' They sit on where they arrive and stay there, and I found that kind of amazing."
The album is loaded with moments that make the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention, your heart race, and your eyes well up. And it's never sounded better, at least on turntables. Spiritualized's first four albums came out during a time when the CD was king and vinyl was on the way out, and records were being made more as a courtesy to the artists and hardcore fans/collectors than anything else. Pressings from the era were not the greatest to put it kindly. These Fat Possum reissues of those albums, dubbed the Spaceman Reissue Program and all available now, have been remastered from the original sources by Alchemy Mastering, overseen by Pierce.
In the case of Ladies & Gentlemen, the packaging is new too with designer Mark Farrow reworking his original artwork (which was designed to look like a box of over-the-counter medicine; the CD came in sealed foil pop-out pill tray). It's a gorgeous set. You can get it on limited edition blue vinyl, along with the new reissues of 1992's Lazer Guided Melodies, 1995's Pure Phase and 2001's Let it Come Down, in the BV shop.