Oh Lord: Spiritualized's Severely Diminished Grandeur

Outside of Christian rock and country singers, few modern musicians have invoked Jesus' name as often as Jason Pierce. Although you'd never peg the Brit as a holy man, his songs with Spacemen 3 nonetheless offered variations on begging favors from the Lord and arguing with God over the entrance requirements to get into heaven. When Pierce moved on to Spiritualized, he didn't lose the faith: God remained both a muse and a metaphor. The musician has spent much of the past decade-plus perfecting addictively druggy devotionals with Spiritualized, bending God's ear on one hand and describing a devilish devotion to getting high on the other.

Seeing Pierce perform live has rightly been called a religious experience because the stage offers the perfect space to expand on Spiritualized's grandiose symphonies. The songwriter is an absolute master of layering it on thick — adding brass, piano, and saxophones; dreamy, droning, dissonant guitars; and myriad other texturizers to his buzzing space-rock pandemonium. What makes Spiritualized such an exciting act, though, is the juxtaposition of voluminous intensity against moments of tempered dream-pop. For every squall, there's a meditative eye of the storm. One perfect example: The live album Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997 barely manages an intro before exploding into glorious noise, which then breaks for a languid electric guitar melody.

For the end of 2007 Pierce is trying something a little different, dropping the terraced dynamics in favor of a more consistently mellow sound. Spiritualized's limited "Acoustic Mainline" tour, which stopped at Bimbo's last week, strips the lineup down to Pierce on acoustic guitar and Spiritualized's Doggen on keyboards and harmonica, plus a string quartet and three gospel singers. The crew performed relatively subdued versions of Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized songs in San Francisco to whet fans' appetites before the next Spiritualized record comes out in 2008.

The problem is that without the usual instrumental bombast, the audience focuses on the lyrics — and Pierce can be a very mediocre lyricist. Listening to the delicate versions of the songs (the set skipped over a couple big albums, including Spiritualized's debut, Lazer Guided Melodies) I realized just how much his lines stick to some variation of "Please, Lord" this and "Oh Lord" that, offering little in the way of clever insight or deep thought.

Words were never the reason you listened to Spiritualized. The attraction lies in the gigantic walls of sound, erected and then melted away, with Pierce's aching vocals floating through the haze. Place his narration at the forefront, and the set list suddenly becomes indistinct.

It wasn't just the narration that flatlined, however. The music itself started to blend unflatteringly as well. Pierce neutered the band's wonderfully violent outbursts and instead gave us a collection of his well-behaved material. And while that was a nice enough sentiment for a candle-lit Bimbo's show on a school night, I don't need "Cool Waves" to sound just like "Oh Happy Day" and "Shine a Light." With everyone in the band seated and the gospel choir maintaining a moderate volume, I found myself wishing the set were the warm-up to the real deal. I wanted Pierce to break this spell of tasteful moderation to really lead his fellow musicians into a frenzy, to show the conflicting emotions his army of instruments usually evokes, instead of the guitar and strings and keyboards united in safe harmony.

Still, the acoustic arrangements didn't sink every song. Pierce is my kind of romanticist, laying plain tortured relationships. A couple excellent odes to longing off Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space actually translated well in this setting — especially the title track, which pulls in midsong Elvis' warning about fools rushing in. The band followed that single with "Broken Heart" ("I'm crying all the time/I have to keep it covered up with a smile/And I'll keep on moving on for a while") and "I Think I'm in Love," the cynical ditty about being married to your drug habit. The trinity of mood-swinging sentiments was a refreshing respite from the onslaught of shout-outs to the Lord.

Even with Pierce sterilizing his repertoire, some fans remained hopelessly devoted to their leader. Towards the end of the night, one voice from the back of the room yelled, "We love you!" at the stage, and the seated crowd worked up to a standing ovation before the encore. I couldn't tell, though, if the praise from the sold-out room was simply due to the memory of what these songs sounded like on record years ago, or if people were genuinely moved by this diminished version of Pierce's cosmic vision.

Personally, though, I'm saving my hallelujahs for the time when Spiritualized once again brings down the universe from the stage. This level-headed staging of the God and dope drama really didn't do Spiritualized justice. So, Lord, hear my prayers and bring back the old Jason Pierce — the one whose lyrics are just one small facet of his heavenly racket.

 
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