Spiritualized,SWEET HEART, SWEET LIGHT, Fat Possum
There’s so much uncertainty in rock right now. It’s turned into lightweight, flexible material; it’s almost apologizing for itself. It’s mostly become a question, or a proposal. It’s renting space. It can seem as if it might go away one day, when its basic imperatives are forgotten, and it’s no longer a music about fear, innocence, power, naive hope and ineptness.
Jason Pierce will be all right if that happens. Pierce, who goes by J Spaceman, the central and only continuous member of Spiritualized, seems to know exactly what he’s doing with rock, or exactly what rock is doing with him. He specializes in two things: big, clear melodies, like those in rounds or old nursery rhymes, rendered prettily and tenderly; and the-artist-is-only-a-vessel music: drones, repetition, chants, rendered through dense layering of sound and guitar spasms in a single chord.
Sometimes, in Sweet Heart, Sweet Light, Spiritualized’s seventh album in 20 years, he puts both tendencies together. Headin’ for the Top Now, a long song with a Velvet Underground eighth-note stomp and improvised guitar-strafing throughout, ends with women’s voices, light and sweet, singing a corrupted nursery rhyme: “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your future go?/ Backstreet dealin’, midnight stealin’, oh does your mother know?”
This record, most of it made at Pierce’s home in London with special trips to Reykjavik and Los Angeles to record strings and a choir, is a reshuffling of the basic materials he’s worked with at least as far back as the 1997 album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. (Rock wasn’t quite so endangered then.) It’s well recorded: you can hear everything clearly, even in the most crazily muddled songs — in I Am What I Am, the gospel choruses, the rumbling bass lines, the tambourines, the free-jazz saxophones by the guest musicians Evan Parker and Tony Bevan.
The album as a whole sounds as if it comes from a willful or natural ignoring. It transmits no anxiety about much outside of Pierce’s enshrined pain and his record collection. It’s grandiose — slouchy, broody, mock-churchy, self-pitying. (“Sometimes I wish that I was dead,” Pierce sings in Little Girl, “‘Cos only the living can feel the pain.”)
It sounds based in the contention that work like this can still qualify as popular music, and that is its strength. It comes straight from an Anglo-American tradition of elegant dissipation and beautiful loserdom. The coordinates are fixed in that tradition, if not frozen, but Pierce finds them inspiring, and his conviction gets the album over, even when it’s ridiculous, which it often is.
— BEN RATLIFF
Lionel Richie, TUSKEGEE, Mercury Nashville
There are many reasons for the air of inevitability around Tuskegee, the sleek, surefooted new country duets album by Lionel Richie. Start with the mainstreaming of country music, with Nashville’s embrace of soft rock and soaring pop. Then take the demographics: Richie is 62, with a multigenerational fan base and a durable catalog of hits. Consider too that the all-star duets album is a proven route to career rehabilitation — and that country listeners make up a big chunk of the public that still buys albums.
You could take all of the above into account and begin to see how natural it is that Richie opened at No. 2 on the pop charts in the US, behind another confoundingly well-preserved agent of reinvention, Madonna. But then you’d be leaving out the influence of reality singing competitions, with their endless reframing of songs across genre lines. If you’ve been watching The Voice this season, you’ve seen Richie pull a shift as a mentor; you’ve also seen Blake Shelton, one of the show’s judges, dispense big-brotherly advice.