While Jason Pierce's past few efforts helming Spiritualized have been topsy-turvy (the hyperbolic Let It Come Down, which was, well, sort of a letdown and the more bare-bones/low-budget Amazing Grace), Songs in A&E is his most harrowing yet. The album is as personal as it is epic, like Homer's Odyssey, with Pierce speaking of arms and man, both equally scarred.
A little background: Pierce began the album as a continuation of Grace's singer-songwriter leanings, only to spend a month in a coma with pneumonia ("A&E" stands for "accident and emergency"), almost die, then get commissioned to score Harmony Korine's Mr. Lonely while helping actress Samantha Morton recover from a stroke. All this after the Verve's Dick Ashcroft stole his girl. Jee-zess.
A&E's "Baby I'm a Fool" is an otherwise-breezy two-chord back-and-forth that cements Pierce's place as alt-rock's Lou Reed, as he's writing the same song better and better each time. He's also earned the right to jazz up lines like "I've got the scars to show I'm healed" with vibraphone and a maraca-shaking horn jam at the end that makes the song as much a revelation as it is a celebration that he's made it this far.
Pierce is nothing if not obvious, and in that sense, he resembles both Reed and Neil Young. On "Death Take Your Fiddle," Pierce, accompanied by a wheezing accordion that sounds — amazingly, gracefully — like a respirator in a hospital room, sings about "the way I feel now death is not around." He sounds more homesick than triumphant. Pierce is at his best at his most elemental. When he sings about fire, he can sound like Robin Williams' Elmer Fudd singing "Fire," but only Pierce can seem simultaneously lit up and burned. "Sitting on Fire" longs as much as "Soul on Fire": The former's "I wanna take you higher" refrain sounds so earnest and optimistic it practically dooms the song. Throw in some soundtrack flourishes (the dramatic "Harmony" interstitials) and a couple of rockers ("You Lie You Cheat," "Yeah Yeah"), and Pierce has just made the record of the year, even if it almost killed him.