Graded on a Curve: Spiritualized,
Amazing Grace

Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman) is the kind of person so enamored of his illicit extracurricular pursuits (think primarily heroin) that he entitled a 1990 album with his then neo-psychedelic band Spacemen 3 Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To. And he took his openness to narcotic predilections with him when Spacemen 3 disbanded and he formed Spiritualized.

Spaceman took his loves for exploring inner (and outer) space (see 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space) and feedback-drenched rock along as well. And on 2003’s Amazing Grace he added a gospel influence, the better to express his very real spiritual yearning. Because unlike his fellow neo-psychedelic genius Anton Newcombe, Pierce has a knack for intensely moving personal lyrics that express his pain, hope, defiance, and yes, love.

On Amazing Grace Pierce breaks things down the middle. Supercharged feedback storms like “This Little Life of Mine” and “She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)” alternate with spirituals like “Lord Let It Rain on Me” and “Lay It Down Slow,” just as hope is intermixed with “fuck it all” despair. What you’re left with is a man who personifies the lines from Grandaddy’s “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot” that go “Did you love this world (and this world not love you?)”

On the chaotic “This Little Life of Mine” Pierce goes feedback feral and defiantly announces his intention to let go and self-combust—”This little life of mine/I’m gonna let it slide/I’m gonna let it burn/’Cause I’m getting sick of trying.” This is junkie autobiography that is every bit as Fahrenheit 451 as the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” is New York cool. Forget Lou’s great big clipper ship—Pierce isn’t spouting poetry, he’s dousing himself in gasoline and striking a match.

Heroin and noise also inform follow-up “She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)”—that title being, of course, a clever play on The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss”)—on which Spaceman sings “I’m gonna shoot it up and take my high/Got a feeling it ain’t gonna die/Gotta fuck it up and mess around/I gotta feeling it ain’t coming down.” The Stooges’ Raw Power is the very first album Pierce ever owned, and its influence can be felt on this one, especially in Pierce’s vocal phrasing (and the racket, of course).

The touching “Hold On” opens on a stately note and boasts a melody highly reminiscent of “Amazing Grace,” and on it Pierce does a 180; his feverish intensity and narcotic nihilism has been replaced by a lullaby sweet appeal to hang on for dear life to the ones who love you: “You got to hold on, baby, to those you hold dear/Hang on to the people you love/’Cause death cannot part us if life already has/Hold on to those you hold dear.” Pierce goes a similar route on the slowly building ballad (it starts with just synth and piano, but by the end you’ve got choirs of angels, lots of drum crash, and a nice guitar solo) “Oh Baby,” on which he sings, “Heaven’s just a heartbeat away, so long as we reach out and take every chance we can get while we’re here.”

“Never Goin’ Back” takes us back to Detroit and Iggy and Company, right down to the muddy, chaotic, feedback-heavy production and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” sleigh bells. “The Power and the Glory” opens on a jazzy piano note and goes on to meld Blue Note (dig that trumpet!) traditionalism to free jazz, and reflects the improvisational work Pierce has done with the likes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Primal Scream, and Yoko Ono. “Rated X” builds on a sustained organ note, quiet guitar and some typewriter-like clatter before evolving into a lovely and evocative piece featuring Pierce’s echoing vocals, which bring to mind the work of Mercury Rev.

“The Ballad of Richie Lee” is an homage to a friend who OD’ed; the music is a bit spacier than anything else you’ll hear on the LP, while Pierce sounds positively pained as he sings, “Now we got his name on a rock again/This time it’s the last” and then “So put your hand in my hand/And maybe we’ll forget/That life had even started/Before the day we met.” “Cheapster” (a play, I’m assuming, on T. Rex’s “Jeepster”) is a fast-paced and highly syncopated number with a somewhat cleaner sound, at least to start—Spiritualized initially eschews the guitar feedback only to land you neck deep in the stuff.

The gospel-tinged “Lord Let It Rain on Me” and “Lay It Down Slow” are album highlights. The former proceeds at a funereal pace and contrasts stripped down verses and full-on river bank tent revival choruses. Resignation (“Lord, let it rain on me/Now I know I’m goin’ down/I’ve got a little knowledge, Lord/And I’m about ready now”) competes with anger: “Jesus Christ, when your back’s against the wall/It’s sure hard to be grateful when you’ve nothing here at all/You say that Hell’s below us, Lord, Heaven can be mine/I don’t believe your promises, I don’t believe your lies.” And he offers the Prince of Peace a challenge: “You got the fools believin’ that there’s something else to gain/Jesus Christ, when you comin’ down again?”

“Lay It Down Slow” is equally slow, and while it opens with Pierce accompanied by organ the latter is joined by guitar, backing vocalists, and drums. The song’s message is as simple as its melody is lovely; Pierce wants a lover to know he’s there to help bear her burden: “And lay it down slow/Lay it down free/Lay it down easy/But lay it on me.” Equally lovely are the lines “If you’ve got love in your heart/Why don’t you keep it with mine/I can’t promise a miracle/But I’ll always be trying.” Your average narcotics abuser is incapable of thinking of anyone else—they’re can’t see beyond that hole in their arm where the medicine goes in. But Pierce somehow manages to look beyond the narcotics, and the results are remarkably moving.

That Pierce is still around—despite some very narrow escapes from death—is a miracle in and of itself. That he continues to produce moving music (see 2022’s Everything Was Beautiful), is almost as much so. Making music may be his vocation, but his avocation seems to be cheating the Grim Reaper, and we’re all the luckier for it. “I’ve been there and back again,” he sings on “I’m Coming Home Again” from Everything Was Beautiful, “gonna dull it with lorazepam.” Pierce may be an ideal candidate for a 12-step program, but in the meantime he’s holding on, back against the wall but still fighting.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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