Psychedelic music is rarely discussed without some mention of the drugs involved in making it, the drugs taken while listening to it, or the effects of the drugs it replicates via sound. They’re complementary elements, even necessary ones, which is why it’s rare to read anything about British psychedelic pioneer Jason Pierce, a.k.a. J Spaceman, that doesn’t mention drugs in some fashion. From his days in Spacemen 3, drug references followed wherever he would go (titles like The Perfect Prescription being one such example), but their unhinged psych-rock freakouts more than suggested that mind-altering substances, in some way, were part of the creative process. With Spiritualized, that motif continued both in aesthetic choices and as self-referential turns of phrase, one song later in the band’s career even finding Pierce singing “the only time I’m drink and drug free is when my drinks and drugs are free.“
He’s at least got a pretty good sense of humor about that sort of thing, which is especially apparent on Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. When the group’s third album was released in 1997, its original sleeve art was designed to look like prescription medication, with instructions (“Spiritualized to treat the heart and soul”), ingredients, warnings and side effects (and if symptoms persist, it recommends also taking Pure Phase and Lazer Guided Melodies). And a limited-edition box set version of the album even included 12 mini-CDs encased in blister packs. That’s commitment to a bit.
To identify Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space as a drug album, though, would be reductive. It’s a psychedelic rock album, and psych-rock is usually inseparable from narcotic indulgence. But a lot of the time it can also be kind of goofy (see: “Incense and Peppermints”). Spiritualized may have been a band based on excess, but for all of its 70 minutes, Ladies and Gentlemen is incredibly focused. Its songs carry an incredible emotional weight even as the band’s performances are their most incendiary.
Described more than once as Pierce’s “classic rock album,” Ladies and Gentlemen is much more accessible and structured than Spiritualized albums past, and owes a much broader debt to the canon. And that includes Pachelbel’s “Canon,” the chord progression of which is used in the title track. The London Community Gospel Choir in particular is one aspect that makes this a much bigger, more forceful album in its arrangements. Backing anthems like “Cool Waves” and the impeccable rock single “Come Together,” the choir brings an extra helping of spirituality to Spiritualized, a harmonious contrast between a search for salvation and a way to kill the pain.
Yet for its moments of soul and grace, Ladies and Gentlemen is still heavily defined by Pierce’s patented guitar freakouts—from the blazing single “Electricity” to the contrasting highs and lows of “All of My Thoughts” and the furious and frightening instrumental “No God Only Religion.” Yet the albums’ most jaw-dropping points are somewhere in-between the serene and the chaotic, simmering somewhere around the surreal. “I Think I’m In Love” is one such song, playing like a call-and-response id and superego conversation on hallucinations, with lines like “I think I’m on fire/ probably just smoking” exemplifying this back and forth. Closer “Cop Shoot Cop” is another, a 20-minute masterpiece of a closing track, with Dr. John providing bluesy New Orleans piano licks to underscore the trance-inducing junkie lament.
On some level, Spiritualized has always been about searching for some form of transcendence, whether in the form of a temporary high or through the moments of soul-baring honesty that define this, their greatest achievement as a band (a band that would ultimately slim down to being Pierce’s solo project). From the second track, “Come Together,” he pegs his subject as “sad and fucked,” and how more succinctly would you describe someone in need of love, acceptance, salvation or just one more fix? Perhaps, though, an album that can provide just that, for 70 minutes at a time: Remember, this medicine is for you.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.