Acid reign

Has Spiritualized emerged with its masterwork, or is it just the drugs?

"I don't think it's not letting it go," he says. "I think it's getting it right. You see so many bands that release their records and at the time say, 'Yeah, this is our new record, and we're really proud of it.' But then with subsequent releases, you find out they're maybe not so proud of it. They say things like, 'We've got the right producer this time.' Or, 'We've reinvented ourselves.' I don't know, none of my friends reinvent themselves every couple of years.

"I want to get it right," Pierce continues. "I want to get it 100 percent, so that this record can't be any better than it is. I can't find any fault with any of the records we've put out because of that reason: I allow myself the time to get it right."

The resulting album exceedingly justifies his meticulousness. Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space--recorded at seven different studios in Bath, London, Memphis, New York, and L.A., with engineering help from the likes of John Leckie and Jim Dickinson--is a breathtaking musical and lyrical catharsis. And it came at a cost.

Always gossipy, the English music weeklies have characterized Ladies and Gentlemen as an album chronicling the unraveling of Pierce's soul-mate relationship with Radley, who remains in the band, if not in his bed. "All I want in life's a little bit of love to take the pain away," Pierce sings in the symphonic title track that opens the album. He finds his ideal romantic union in such tunes as the orgasmic, Detroit-flavored "Come Together" and the idyllic "I Think I'm in Love," which is augmented by a horn section and the lulling strings of the Balanescu Quartet.

But the lyrics get rockier--and the music noisier--as the album progresses. In "The Individual" and "Broken Heart," love is lost, and the pain is worse than any drug withdrawal. "I don't even miss you/But that's 'cause I'm fucked up/I'm sure when it wears off/Then I will be hurting," Pierce declares on the latter. Nevertheless, he moves on: The album comes to a gut-wrenching close with the jarring, 16-minute "Cop Shoot Cop," an epic collaboration with legendary voodoo pianist Dr. John that stands as Pierce's answer to "Sister Ray." By the end of it all, nothing is resolved, because there are no easy answers for Pierce. But you're left with the impression that the music has seen him through, just as it always has in the past.

Pierce deftly wiggles out of questions about the English press' take on the autobiographical elements of the record: "I don't read it," he says. "I'm not interested in that kind of press." He doesn't mind talking about the album's other controversy, though.

Advance cassettes of Ladies and Gentlemen that were sent to press and radio included a different version of the title track, one on which Spiritualized covered part of the verse and chorus of Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" and folded it into the middle of the group's own tune. That brief snippet set the tone for everything that followed: Only fools rush in, but like an addict, Pierce just can't help himself. The choice becomes even more appropriate if you're aware, as Pierce reminded me, that a tape of Elvis' version was packed on the Voyager Space Probe before it was launched into the cosmos. Unfortunately, the Presley estate threatened legal action and forced the band to remove the Elvis portion of "Ladies and Gentlemen..." only weeks before the album's release.

"If I had wanted to re-title the song 'I Can't Help Falling In Love With You' and given him the songwriting credit, then I could have done that, but it wasn't that big a part of the song," Pierce says. "I actually prefer the new version of it. It actually sounds now like a pop song written by a madman, whereas before it had this kind of familiarity to it--a safety net--because it revolved around this Elvis track."

In truth, the version with the ghost of Elvis was a near-perfect pop moment, but in 1998, you have to admire any rock visionary who is so consistently willing to work without that safety net.

"That's what I've held out for; I've always tried not to compromise," he says. "Too many people are compromising massively, whereas my idea of success is putting out records that capture what we want to capture. We wanted to make a record that would fit alongside Sly and the Family Stone's There's A Riot Going On, Captain Beefheart's Clear Spot, and Elvis' Sun Sessions rather than something that fits alongside the glut of contemporary music."

And damned if he hasn't succeeded.

Spiritualized opens for Radiohead March 29 at the Music Hall in Fair Park.

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