Author note: ICYMI is a new series of posts where I review albums from yesteryear that you might have missed for whatever reason. It could be a totally obscure work, an underground classic, something you may have heard of but never really delved into, something I have a particular affinity for, or it may be something legendary that I felt like reviewing anyway. This is one of many to come. Enjoy.
Growing up, my brother was the one in our house that listened to music from the British Isles. While I was primarily fixated on American heavy metal, he was listening to U2, Oasis, Radiohead, Travis, Morrissey, The Verve, etc. With the exception of Radiohead and Oasis, I didn’t fall for a lot of “his” bands right off the bat, though there were certainly songs that grabbed and held my attention.
Such was the case with the title track from Spiritualized’s 1997 album Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. I was dumbstruck by the near medicinal haze the song induced. Looped vocal track piled upon looped vocal track upon looped vocal track sailing on an ocean of strings, sustained guitar notes, subtle percussion and heart monitor beeps create a heady, intoxicating cocktail of music with a trance-inducing mantra over the top that renders the song more like a prayer than a rock n’ roll album opener. With lines like “All I want in life is a little bit of love to take the pain away” and “I will love you til I die and I will love you all the time” it’s clear this a broken man searching for solace and meaning and refuge. It’s like Ravel’s Bolero on prayerful hallucinogenics. It’s one of a handful of songs on my Spotify playlist called ad infinitum meaning that I can listen to them forever without getting tired of them. I put it in such a pantheon of esteem that I think it should be taboo to play live, even for the band. I saw them play it live for the first time a few years ago and was honestly a bit let down because the studio version is so perfect.
I seldom made it past that first track back when my brother first bought it in 1997, but over time, I’ve grown to love the record more than him I think. The title track explodes into “Come Together” which feels bombastic because of it’s immediate use of drum kit as opposed to the slight, textural percussion of the opener. The stilted vocal delivery and grandiose, swirling horns put Jason Pierce’s dynamic songwriting on full display within the first pair of tunes.
A rock band employing string sections and brass sections often comes off as facile or schmaltzy as it’s typically done in the most superficial of ways. Pierce is in full command of the instruments at his disposal though. He uses the great dynamic range of the mini orchestra to swing the pendulum from elegiac solemnity to nearly free jazz chaos, sometimes in a single song. These songs aren’t grand because the can be, they’re grand because they have to be. That said, Pierce can also dial it down to minimal instrumentation on a track like “Stay With Me” that has flourishes of peak era Pink Floyd without being derivative.
Lyrically speaking, Spiritualized has typically stuck to three main themes: earthly love, god, and drugs…and sometimes two or three of them intertwined together. He never shies away from acknowledging his addictions/demons/muses:
I sometimes have my breakfast right off of a mirror / and sometimes I have it right out of a bottle
Sometimes things are crystal clear, sometimes they’re obscured by who knows what. The lyrics and the meaning fade. And just when it feels like all is lost, in comes a song like “Cool Waves” that sounds like the church music you wish existed.
The album wraps up with the 17-minute “Cop Shoot Cop” which would normally be considered a bloated, self-indulgent, overly long run time, but makes perfect sense here in context of the entire album. This album is grand and deserves a grand finale which “Cop Shoot Cop” delivers while oscillating between bluesy gospel and guitar driven cacophony.
At 70 minutes, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is rather long on the surface, but there’s so much here to explore that the ride seems incredibly brief. I listened to the album nearly twice all the way through while writing this and it felt like no more than 45 minutes or so. This is not background music. This is music to pay attention to. Listening to this IS the activity. Listen to it loud while reclining on your sofa, listen to it on headphones and melt into your bed. Turn the lights down low and settle in for the ride. They don’t make albums like this anymore.
You can stream the full album on YouTube here.
(Banner image courtesy of Julio Enriquez)