I have a very extensive catalogue of old articles that I think are worth revisiting. Here’s one of them. (This article originally appeared in The Georgia Straight.)
No one has ever accused Jason Pierce of taking shortcuts. The Spiritualized mastermind has been known to take as long as a year to mix an album, even though he admits he doesn’t especially enjoy the painstaking process. He’d rather be on-stage than in the studio. Being detail-oriented usually pays off for Pierce, though, and there may be no better example of this than “Hey Jane”.
The song starts as a jangly pop number that builds to a psychedelic rave-up before crashing into a wall of dissonance and petering out. Then things pick up again, cruising along to a krautrock beat topped by heaven-sent gospel harmonies. The structure of “Hey Jane” seems to mirror the life of its title character, a journey from desperation and squalor to ultimate redemption. The song takes almost nine minutes to play out. It’s nearly matched by a couple of other tracks (“Headin’ for the Top Now” and “So Long You Pretty Thing”) on the new Spiritualized album Sweet Heart Sweet Light. But “Hey Jane” ultimately takes longest-song honours, so, naturally, Pierce picked it to be the first single, at its full length.
“It wouldn’t work in any other way,” the 46-year-old Englishman says, reached at a tour stop in Austin, Texas. “I mean, people play it on the radio—the first three minutes. I think it’s kind of ludicrous. It doesn’t really make sense like that. That’s what’s weird about music. Everything’s relative. The end of ‘So Long You Pretty Thing’, where that lyric comes out—‘So long you pretty thing/Save your little soul’—they tried to edit that down into a single, so it’s just round the end section. And it’s not that ecstatic; it’s not that great a sound. But it is, comparative to the intro and the way the middle section pans out. It’s a little bit like that with ‘Hey Jane’. No part of it is great, in a kind of pop way, but it makes sense in its entirety. So there’s no way of releasing it any other way.”
That Pierce thinks of his work in pop terms at all is somewhat surprising, given that the oeuvre of Spiritualized ranges from drone-rock bliss-fests (“Electric Mainline”) to 17-minute avant-jazz freakouts (“Cop Shoot Cop”) to lush, symphonic ballads (“Stop Your Crying”). He says, however, that his initial impulse with Sweet Heart Sweet Light—Spiritualized’s seventh studio album and its first since 2008’s Songs in A&E—was to make it a pop record in the vein of the Beatles. When it dawned on him that he wasn’t really all that interested in the Fab Four, his reference points shifted to more esoteric fare, such as albums by Charlie Feathers and Neu!, Captain Beefheart’s Clear Spot, and Kill City by Iggy Pop and James Williamson. Those were his touchstones, at any rate, but it’s not as if he brought a stack of LPs into the studio with him.
“I didn’t listen to them once when I was making this record,” Pierce says. “I wasn’t after copying the sounds or the sonic of those records. It’s just the idea of those records: that they weren’t records that reached for the stars, or that they weren’t written about like pinnacles of rock ’n’ roll history, but they were beautiful collections of songs by people that had soaked up a bit of musical wisdom. They didn’t have that kind of arrogance of youth, where the width of your music is actually very slim.”
Mind you, Sweet Heart Sweet Light does contain some of the most immature songwriting to be found on any Spiritualized effort. That’s not meant as a slight, either; the writing in question came courtesy not of Pierce himself, but of his daughter, Poppy. Nine years old at the time the album was recorded, Poppy contributed lyrics to the intro of “So Long You Pretty Thing”, and she sings the following lines with her father: “If you feel lonely/And the world’s against you/Take the long way home/Past the scary Jesus/And you’ll find my door/With your name in diamonds/And you’ll feel lonely/No more.”
The verse doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but its naiveté is charming, which somehow makes it perfect. That’s a quality that Pierce, who says his best work often emerges from failed attempts at doing something else entirely, relishes.
“It’s like when I write orchestrations,” he says. “I don’t think I’m great at writing orchestrations, but I write orchestrations that kind of horrify the string players that come in to do it, like it’s so wrong. It’s like art, isn’t it? You have to unlearn to be able to find the line that works. You could learn things like a talent, but you have to be able to unlearn how to do it to find something that isn’t just a product of that learning.”
In other words, there’s no shortcut.