Given a pedigree as distinguished as Jason Pierce's, expectations are high when it comes to releases bearing his name. Couple this with an expanse of nearly five years since the last proper Spiritualized record, anticipation for the imminent release of Songs in A&E is undoubtedly high. The wait was more than just a vanity exercise or a round of writer's block; Pierce was dealing with a well-documented health scare that ceased initial work on the album and ultimately imparted its physical and emotional effect on the tone of the recording.
By some limited measure, Songs in A&E is another example of Jason Pierce 101, a return to business as usual. His lyrical attention remains steadfastly affixed to topics of love, loss, and alienation. Musically, however, he continues to merge and reevaluate the roles of his seminal influences -- which colored his Spacemen 3 and early Spiritualized releases -- with his more recently developed affections for gospel and American blues. These subtle variations are the true measures of the forward movement that he exercises with each album. His tempering of existent themes with maturation and experience becomes the difference between the staggering, simple beauty of Pure Phase and the over-complicated, nearly self-indulgent beauty of Let It Come Down. This album is Pierce stripped bare, exposed and unobstructed by walls of unnecessary ornamentation, a construct of a man recently very ill who now finds expressive simplicities just as precious as complexities.
After the perceptible half-step of 2003's Amazing Grace, his newest work exhibits a perfected counterpoise between his pure rock ‘n’ roll song and his blissed-out psychedelic orchestrations. His rediscovery of the value of subtlety, a factor which has always contributed to his strongest songs, has reclaimed the fore. And the overworked -- and, to some degree, thoughtless -- embellishments that consumed finer moments on Let It Come Down are now restrained. The haunted moodiness of a track such as "Sitting On Fire" is allowed to slowly unfold -- even stopping for a silent pause, a breath, in preparation of its celestial climb -- where previously it may have been suffocated with ever-increasing sweeps of melancholy strings. The lyric within its crescendo, "In my own time I am dying/ Can't even hold what I own," is given the proper space to expose itself, yielding a deep impact upon the listener.
"Sweet Talk," the first proper song on the album, finds Pierce once again in the company of a choir and horns, which have been in place since Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, but his voice is now caressed by the instrumentation and vocalizations rather than being consumed by them. "Death Take Your Fiddle" is equally discreet in expression, led along by a loop suggestive of a respirator and a wavering harmonic tone. Where others might choose to take a lyric like "So death take your fiddle/ Play a song for me/ Play a song we used to sing/ The one that brought you close to me/ Play a song and I will sing along," and wring it for all it's worth, draining it of any sincerity: here it appears subtle and bruised. Even a track like "Soul On Fire" seems raw and unadulterated compared to previous songs in the Spiritualized catalog that share the same sentiment.
"Baby I'm Just a Fool" is one of the finer moments on the record, and an example of past meeting present. Merging a string loop that echoes the melody of "All Of My Tears" from Pure Phase with marimba, tambourine rattle, strummed guitar, and gentle progressions, it builds to a orgiastic swell of braying trumpet, amplified violin, flute, and psychedelic hum. "Don't Hold Me Close," a simple hymn-like ballad rife with gentle nuance, evokes the simple profundity of "The Slide Song" by remaining relatively static, never over-expanding beyond necessity. "Goodnight Goodnight" achieves its effect in similar understated manner, a plaintive lullaby fleshed out with plucked acoustic guitar, the rasp of strings, and the fluttering vibrato of Pierce's voice leading to an outro repetition of "Funeral home, funeral home," a nod to Daniel Johnston.
Pierce is still able to turn on the psychedelic rockers, as evidenced by "You Lie, You Cheat" or "I Gotta Fire," both flared-up and trembling under fever. "Yeah Yeah," however, boasts the greatest execution of this trilogy; composed of noise squeal, hand-claps, blues-guitar riff, and Pierce in acerbic delivery, the track demands attention by its effusive temperament alone.
It is the six "Harmony" interludes that are the most successful elements on the record, which is surprising considering their fleeting presence. Said Pierce, "While I was doing stuff for Harmony's film, I also worked on the ‘Harmony’ pieces. They're called that as a reference to him, and also because they're kind of harmonic pieces. They suggested a way of putting the original tracks together." And while these fragments amount to no more than six minutes of the record in total, their effect is monumental to the whole, serving as bridges between thoughts.
Although it remains, at its foundation, an exploration of themes that Pierce has long explored, Songs In A&E becomes more than the sum of its historical variants by directly placing emotional vulnerability at its focal point. This re-examination of the importance of the unaffected expression has become an irrefutable sequent of his ordeal, and no artist's statement is greater than the one most bare. Pierce has just placed his before us.