Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space, the third album and masterpiece from Spiritualized, reaches for psychedelic rock’s outer edges. It’s gauzy, cavernous, pre-digital, decadent, featuring close to 20 session players, at least as many engineers, the Balanescu Quartet, the London Community Gospel Choir, and New Orleans blues legend Dr. John. It’s a relic of a bygone era in indie rock, when auteurs like frontman Jason Pierce—who played at least seven different instruments on the album and wrote every song—could get blank checks for full creative control.
The record borrows its title from a passage in the philosophical novel Sophie’s World: “Only philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of language and existence. Some of them fall off, but others cling on desperately and yell at the people nestling deep in the snug softness, stuffing themselves with delicious food and drink. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ they yell, ‘we are floating in space!’ But none of the people down there care.”
Intuitively, this tracks. Throughout Ladies and Gentlemen, Pierce and his players evoke profound isolation in the eye of overwhelming chaos, clamor, and just plain bigness. It’s hard to discuss the sound of this record without using the term “space rock,” which Wikipedia lists as the album’s primary genre. For what it’s worth, the album also uses mind-altering substances as a motif so overtly that it almost feels tongue-in-cheek (see: the prescription label-inspired cover, plus the gloriously over-the-top collector’s edition vinyl released in 2009).
On the other hand, to call Ladies and Gentlemen a philosophical album would be a major stretch. This is a record about feelings, not thoughts. You won’t find any serious inquiries into being, the universe, or society. The album’s grandeur doesn’t come from the weighty questions it explores so much as the way it renders Pierce’s personal pain so expansively.
This isn’t to say these lyrics lack depth, but that what depth they do have, they don’t advertise. The opening line sets the tone beautifully: “All I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away / Getting strong today, a giant step each day.” Later, on the harrowing “Home of the Brave,” Pierce sings “I don’t even miss you, but that’s ‘cause I’m fucked up / I’m sure when it wears off that I will be hurting” in a deadened drawl. He hits rock bottom, and seems to run out of words, on “Broken Heart”: “Though I have a broken heart / I’m too busy to be heartbroken / There’s a lot of things that need to be done.” Not exactly illuminating, but that’s beside the point. The album is full of languid, plainspoken sentiments like these, all the more affecting for the vacuum they leave us to fill with our own specifics.
Christopher Owens, frontman of the too-short-lived rock revivalist band Girls, is maybe the most prominent torchbearer of this lyrical style. Owens sings with naked yearning and uses language that blurs the line between stark simplicity and melodrama, just like Pierce (Pierce even interviewed Owens about his own music back in 2013). Compare the opening line of Girls’ Father, Son, Holy Ghost, “I know you’re out there, you might be right around the corner / And you’ll be the girl that I love,” with that of Ladies and Gentlemen’s title track. The plainspoken, pleading sentiments are indistinguishable.
This kind of approach is risky. It only works with the proper musical scaffolding to back it up. And this is the true triumph of Ladies and Gentlemen: the scaffolding is the main event.
Pierce isn’t interested in articulating his pain lyrically, but the music is another story. This is a collection of songs, to be sure, but it’s also a 70-minute soundscape washed in twinkling rivulets, shot through with holes, backgrounded by free-associative chaos. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when one of these states ends and another begins. Whether to call instrumentals “The Individual” and “No God Only Religion” chaotic or stultifying, blistering or meditative really depends on the day. Does the pillowy gospel ballad “Cool Waves” soundtrack pain or ecstasy? Is “Electricity” meant to evoke god? Drugs? A lover? In this album’s orbit, all of these are roughly synonymous.
Pierce does rely on an oscillating quiet vocals, loud instrumental pattern quite a bit, but it never wears out its welcome because of how careful and relistenable the instrumental freakouts really are. Though atonal and snarling, there’s something inviting, almost warm, about extended closer “Cop Shoot Cop” The track has it three ways: it’s a tight, rhythmic blues tune, a “Sister Ray”-style wind tunnel of noise, and a devastating statement of despair. Rarely is a mostly-instrumental 17-minute song so unworthy of being skipped.
But Pierce’s vision extends beyond individual tracks. As a whole, Ladies and Gentlemen is flawlessly sequenced. Listening front to back always feels much shorter than 70 minutes; the album plays like a single composition running an inevitable course. Listen to the way “Home of the Brave” borrows the distortion-damaged wreckage of “Electricity” for its opening tones, or how “Come Together” quiets down to make room for the involuted groove of “I Think I’m in Love.”
The latter song covers the most ground. All of the album’s key elements are there: despair, wry humor, unfettered desire amplified by repetition, a groove both tight and watery, and a vivacious harmonica from Sean Cook—one of the most under-discussed elements of the Ladies and Gentlemen sound. It seems like an odd choice to feature harmonica so prominently in an album like this, but the effect is delightfully psychedelic. Cook knows when to be forceful (see: the way he ushers in the schizoid instrumental passages in “All of My Thoughts”) and when to recede (listen to his subtle accents during the verses of “Cool Waves”). More broadly, the harmonica contributes to an essentially analog, almost rootsy aesthetic that distinguishes Ladies and Gentlemen from other high-concept rock records of the time like OK Computer. Both are full of great moments, but where Radiohead sounds processed, Spiritualized sounds organic. The album was recorded live, after all—on a grander scale than a tight band effort, but no less human for it.
Twenty-five years later, we can still feel the ripples. Apparently, so can Pierce. Earlier this year, Spiritualized put out Everything Was Beautiful, their most blatant callback yet—with prescription label packaging, gospel choir vocals, and an opener set to the beat of an ECG to boot. But trying to recreate this album is like chasing a first high. It feels definitive. In a sense, it’s a successor to another British rock masterpiece, Exile On Main Street. Both records are hi-fi but raw, deeply drug-influenced, twitching with desire for a vague transcendence. But on Ladies and Gentlemen, there’s no “Shine a Light”—only a dubious resurrection: “Cop shoot cop, I believe that I have been reborn.” By this point, we know better than to read this as redemption. For Spiritualized, even a rebirth is just another wave in a cosmic sea.
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Casey Burke is a published music journalist and creative writer with a wide-ranging taste in music. His work has appeared in Grandma Sophia’s Cookies, Brainchild Literary & Arts Magazine, and blogs for WTJU and Plaze Music.