I’ll give this to Jason Pierce – if he wanted to record an album that sounds like something recorded by someone coming off of a near death experience, he nailed it and then some.
In turns weary, desperate and weakly celebratory, Songs in A & E is a remarkable documentary of Pierce’s experiences from the edge of life.
Maybe this just has to do with the albums I’ve paid attention to most this year, but Spiritualized seems to join the group of artists who are raging against the dying light of the album. With short instrumental pieces spread out through the album (“Harmony 1,” 2 and so on) and acting as bridge pieces, it certainly feels like a piece, even without the unifying lyrical themes. It gets off to a subdued start with the openers of “Sweet Talk” and “Death Take Your Fiddle.” The latter is a haunting song that seems to revel in the feeling of being so close to dying and escaping. “So death, take your fiddle.. / and play a song you used to sing / the one that brought you close to me.” He then seems to dance on his own grave: “But morphine, codeine, whisky they won’t alter / the way I feel now death is not around.” Conversely the album contains songs like the first single, and one of the album’s best tracks, “Soul on Fire,” a more studied and reserved celebration of being alive. “I gotta hurricane inside my veins / and I want to stay forever.”
The songs that don’t deal directly with Pierce’s ruminations on the luck of being alive deal with his relationships with others following the experience. The album’s longest track is the mesmerizing “Baby I’m Just a Fool,” one of a set of songs from the middle of the album that seem to deal with love relationships. “You’re so fucking self-assured I’d rather let you down than let you go,” Pierce sings. “Hell it should be easy but I have got the heart of men of fear.” Is Pierce speaking of a ‘fear’ of change and resistance to making decisions – thus the “I’d rather let you down than let you go,” forcing decisions into the hands of others? The lyrics here are actually worth some examination to search out the mind of the narrator.
The closing songs of the album (including the gorgeous closer, “Goodnight Goodnight”) examine more general relationships and family and an ultimate summary of the experiences. But where are we as a listener left at the end? To be honest, I’ve been stewing over this album more or less since it was released a few weeks ago and have been struggling with my thoughts on it. I don’t know that there are a lot of layers to the album – Pierce has laid things pretty bare for the most part – but it is a profound listen. Whether Pierce’s experiences gave him this insight or not – he did start writing and recording this album two years prior to his illness – it is certainly cast in a revealing light as a result of it. Artists in both music and literature often struggle to get their ideas from head to page (“I have got the dreams of gods and kings / but I can’t hold my thoughts / my mind is full of a thousand different things“), but here Pierce succeeds fantastically at putting across what he’s learned in a way that makes it approachable and identifiable. From earthy, Stonesy rockers to bare band and strings, Songs in A&E is a triumph. words/j. neas