An Open Letter Regarding Sweet Heart, Sweet Light
I’ve attempted two reviews now — one an indulgent failure, and one a pseudo-poetic critique. But both fell short of saying what I wanted to say all along, so now I’m approaching this work slightly outside of criticism. (The best critical responses have already been written elsewhere, and any attempt at mimicry, or worse, one-upmanship, would result in a bland repetition of the same.)
“Hey Jane” wears its NSFW like a smug little badge and is a 10 minute long micro-film about a black transvestite prostitute with a small and frightened child who ends up beaten to a bloody pulp by a repressed and shamed white trick. It is repellent and upsetting and I don’t care what Art is allowed to do, I don’t like it. I don’t like the fact that every fist fall, every crunch of boot on facial bones, is filmed in detail and at length. I don’t like what it appears to be saying about people. I don’t like that said whiney, white, self-pitying, copyist, imagination-free, privilege-flaunting cisman from England has used this story and these characters from waaaaaaaaaaay outside his experience, knowledge or culture as entertainment, however much Art has given him a hall pass to do so. That he thinks he can harvest grit by association. That he has licence to use such sad and graphic images of others’ sexuality and poverty and lifestyle and even death to imply his own hipness/toughness.
Although I’m put off by her tone, I take her criticism seriously. I just happen to think that she is wrong. I have nothing to say here to those whose lives are marked by sexual violence, racial inequality, or poverty. There is more pain (targeted, structural, and unique) than my words could ever suggest, and I mean no disrespect by giving it so little space here. But, more abstractly, I think it is unfair to equate suffering with subjectivity or with, for lack of a better phrase, “identity politics.” Suffering (qua suffering) knows no particular identity. If J. Spaceman is exploiting his own suffering, he is doing so no more than any other confessional artist. (And yes, in humility, we must accept that the privileged carry with them their own suffering. The middle-aged white man is no more or less vulnerable, in a very real sense; no one is liberated from its history. This is the fundamental and often unbearable fact of existence. And there is no competition; there is just unchecked privilege, which I won’t accuse Spaceman of here.) Maybe he is being disingenuous, but I suspect he’s not. And when I watch his video for “Hey Jane,” I see nothing alien to his own story as he has given it to us: a precarious grace revealed through violence. Ultimately, it seems to me less a question of representation than compassion.
Furthermore, when was the last time a music video actually reflected the content of its song? While that’s not an excuse for insensitivity, it is a recognition of the state of the medium: the song says one thing, the visuals say another, and “Hey Jane” is clearly propelled by mood rather than by the song’s lyrical substance.
It seems important to say these things, as I’ve often found J. Spaceman’s confessions convincing and moving. They are blunt, lucidly anguished, and decidedly un-lyrical, so this is a strange admission for me, as I’m most often taken in by opaque, lyrical prose. Yet Spaceman’s words remind me of the late (and last) John Berryman: “ah Wednesday night is hell.” Both remind me that late-style, in extremis, has little-to-no room for pretense. “It’s too late, too late,” he sings “shamelessly.” Elsewhere, twisting his “Won’t Get to Heaven” into a final resignation: “I won’t get to heaven/ Won’t be coming home/ Will not see my mother again/ ‘Cause I’m lost and I’m gone/ This life is too long/ And my willpower was never too strong.” (These words are the entirety of Spiritualized’s 22-year lyrical content summed up into 33 words, adding, it seems, only the missing mother. I want to write about how this is too simple to be moving, but like the lost-love letters I found near a high school recently, sometimes the more honest expression, however pitiful, is the clearest. It is certainly the most vulnerable. Confess your sins and be healed, James writes.) Beyond any accusation of self-pity, there remains a question if Spaceman is too late. He is still miraculously alive. (He thanks his medical staff in Sweet Heart, Sweet Light’s liner notes.) And he never really believed in heaven, anyway. “No God, only religion”: even those who believe I think know that the Name reaches beyond the Name, into the impossible, invisible, anguished core of our materiality. Often, the best we can do is try to speak it. Speaking, singing, ourselves, at least by definition, means there is at least some time left, right? Time to correct wrongs? I don’t blame the naysayers, but I think redemption gets a bad reputation.
For all the criticism he receives for it, I think Spaceman’s appropriation remains the profoundly hopeful core in Sweet Heart, Sweet Light. Yes, it is particularly hopeful, but hopeful nonetheless. Sweet Heart Sweet Light is a love letter: not an advance, but a hard-won remembrance of what he has been given by and through others, even as he remains infamously insufferable. Spaceman has made it clear, in interview and homage alike, to whom all his love is directed: Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, Lou Reed, Peter Brötzmann; to a history of marginal psychedelia; and to his daughter, who he includes as a co-writer and vocalist. (They sing, in the majestic closing track, the end of loneliness.) Again, life is a problem, he cries. “Help me Lord, help me Father.” He has been crying for two decades, relentlessly, over the same things. (Before we judge him and his compulsion too harshly, we might do well to examine our own history of tears.) He cries out to his word-god, his word-father, now that his heaven is out of reach and that his mother, too, too-finally, is gone. Cut off from his origins, afflicted, as we all are, consciously or unconsciously by the irrevocable departure (to borrow Berryman’s phrase), by his separation from the mother, he writes back to those who still hold him, lovingly: his appropriations. And he plays out his final pain with the one whom he has actually held.
Each of Spaceman’s albums are so much less about reinvention, that perpetual hello, than perfection through grace — that is, repentance. They are always failed attempts at perfect living, sin wrecked, and oftentimes merely staving off death for another year: they only cheat death on another ride. But they are living things, fleeing and appropriating, and often gorgeous in their imperfection, like a life. Truly, Sweet Heart, Sweet Light is one of those gorgeous things and, if nothing else, the most profound late statement Spaceman has given us in a decade.