Live: Spiritualized at the Apollo
photo by Christine Scarano
Text by Bret Gladstone
“And you may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here?”
If you look up Spiritualized on AllMusic.com, you’ll find ten different “genres” to describe the band’s music. They are as follows: “Shoegaze,” “Post Rock/Experimental,” “Indie-rock,” “Alternative Pop/Rock,” “Neo-Psychedelia,” “Space Rock,” “ Dream Pop,” “Ambient Pop,” “Noise Pop,” and my personal favorite, the pornographic “Slow-Core.” If this seems excessive, consider the fact that the site also affords the group twenty-two disparate “moods” (none of which, incidentally, is “spiritual”). Allmusic.com is a pretty funny site. Personally, I’ve always seen Spiritualized as a reluctant Brit-Pop act torn between the lures of My Bloody Valentine’s squall, Oasis’s narcissistic bombast (see “Come Together”), and Frippertronic minimalism.
It isn’t so much that the substance of their performance at the Apollo on Friday lay somewhere in between these categorizations. It’s that it lay outside of them completely. Of course, that’s the inevitable outcome of classification. Besides, despite the billing, Friday’s show wasn’t technically a Spiritualized concert at all, but rather a continuation of Jason Pierce’s “Acoustic Mainlines” tour—a string of undeniably self-aggrandizing solo gigs which cover Spiritualized tunes alongside those from Spacemen 3, Devotional Hymns, and, interestingly enough, Daniel Johnston (“True Love will Find You”).
Predictably, the Spiritualized numbers dominated the night—all of them stocked with the type of clouded melodies, faux-ambivalent crooning, and general melancholy that came to signify “Brit-Pop, another designation not included in the guide. No-one mentioned “Jesus-Rock” either. But shorn of its electricity and buttressed melodramatically by a string quartet and five-piece gospel choir, that’s undoubtedly the label that best described Pierce’s music. In retrospect, I suppose this shouldn’t have been as shocking as it was. The fact that Spiritualized is “religious” is an obvious enough conclusion to draw without even hearing them play. After all, this is a band with a name like a bad Public Access show.
But what a strange scene.
String Quartets: 1. Gospel Singers: 5. Spiritualized band-members: 2 (Jason Pierce on acoustic guitar and vocals, Tony Foster on Fender Rhodes Piano). Hip Pseudonyms: 2 (J Spaceman and Doggen, respectively). Brit-Pop mullets: 2. Skinny jeans: 2. Pairs of sunglasses worn indoors: 2. White people: 1501 (Apollo’s Capacity minus five—c.f. Gospel Singers). Realizing that the shoe-gazing post-pop-experimentalist-dream-noise-neo-psychedelic-ambient-alternative-slowcore-space-rockers you expected to see are—when reduced to acoustic guitar and electric piano-- essentially a Christian rock band: Priceless.
While Allmusic gamely acknowledges Spiritualized’s “heavy debt to gospel music, soul…and devotional hymns,” what they don’t mention is how incredibly formulaic the band makes those traditions seem. By way of illustration, here’s a (mostly accurate) statistical study of the night’s lyrical signifiers:
Invocations of the Lord/Christ/God entity: 100
Uses of the word “Baby” or “Babe”: 15
Cleansing water images: 47
Descriptions of weeping/tears: 23
Appearances of the word “love”: 25
Extreme conditions of hot and cold described (predominantly “fire”): 25
Consecutive repetitions of the phrase “Feel so sad”: 11
Mix in a stock description of “pain” or “ache” ( too numerous to count) and the above summary pretty much amounts to a step-by step instruction manual for writing a Spiritualized song. Rinse and repeat. Try this quick exercise. Picture a simple, slow building chord progression, watery keys, and some willowy strings. Pierce sings:
Baby my arms are warm
But Love, your heart is cold.
And Lord, let the waves wash over me.
We’re crying and we’re getting old.
Baby if you lose your love
Don't take me by surprise
Don't think you're crying
But there's teardrops in your eyes
Now, without cheating, which of these stanzas is an actual Spiritualized lyric?
Stripped of noise, percussion and those heaving swells, Pierce’s music is so exceedingly precious and affected that it almost doesn’t seem plausible it’s not ironic. But it’s not. What he’s essentially done is wed the naked emotion of gospel music to the anthemic bravado of Brit-Pop by locating the obsession with mantra those two tradition share. And so what? It makes sense that religion should be a part of this music. After all, spirituals and hymns bore the Blues, and the Blues bore rock and roll. Somewhere in between, though, God became less of an inspiration and more of an artistic signifier-- a trope. It’s more than a question of “secularization.” He’s a part of the zeitgeist.
In other words, the difficulty here is that Spiritualized’s “spirituality” is complicated. The God which shows up in Pierce’s music more closely resembles the God you find in the Blues and Soul traditions than the one in the Bible —a figure invoked to catalyze tales of love, loss, and identity which are almost always purely existential in nature. Every now and again, the devotional mask Pierce wears over his fatalism would slip just a bit: “Lord, help me out”, he sang in “Lord Can You Hear Me”:
I'd take my life, but I'm in doubt
Just where my soul will lie
Deep in the earth or way up in the sky
…..Lord, can you hear me at all?
Religiosity has traditionally been relegated to the status of “un-cool” in rock and roll. But midway through the show, it occurred to me that if the idea of God never existed, rock stars probably would have invented Him as a structural device to cloud the basic truth that—at the end of the day—musicians write songs to be heard and evaluated by other people. Indie-rock is deeply ashamed of this truth. It disrupts the “purity” and “authenticity” of the artist—myths which Indie culture cherishes. But any musician who denies it is a poseur of the worst variety.
In reality, rock religiosity is often just a specious form of self-idolatry. When a song’s dialogue is ostensibly between the performer and “The Lord,” the audience is relegated to the status of “privileged” voyeur, deepening the sense of distance and agency from which rock stardom accretes.
This is between me and God, this conceit says. You can listen in. But rock stars are by definition graven images unto themselves. It’s the artist our gaze is fixed upon, not God. Rock stars know this (the fact that they know is by definition what makes them rock stars), and as a result, “spiritualized” performances are always riddled with that essential contradiction. Friday wasn’t any different.
Outside of the encore (the traditional hymn “Oh Happy Day”), the gospel singers mostly cooed timidly around Pierce’s vocals and guitar, the string quartet swooned conservatively beneath the other instruments, and both members of Spiritualized looked every bit the part of archetypal Brit-rockers. All of which buoyed Jason Pierce to the surface of the collective consciousness, not Jesus. By all appearances, the only altar Pierce likely kneels at is the altar of his own reflection. Plus, as far as I can tell, Spiritualized broke at least four of the Ten Commandments in less than two hours (see footnotes). The strangest thing about the show, though, was that no-one seemed to think it was strange. It was like a bad David Lynch movie.
When Doggen wasn’t plunking out organ-like accompaniment with his tight leather jacket hiking up his back—revealing a plumber’s share of ass-crack—he was swigging beer out of a Dasani bottle. “Take off your sunnies Jason!” one British guy kept shouting. “I want to see your eyes!” “Show us your tits!” another man responded. All of this cast a pall of weirdness over the event which was multiplied ten-fold by the weird solemnity I’ve noticed at the Apollo’s rock and roll shows—something I used to suspect owed to it’s gilded balustrades, memories of old New York, and the shimmying ghost James Brown—but which probably has more to do with the kind of crippling white guilt which accompanies being nervous in Harlem. One gets the feeling that the audience members are actually conscious of appropriating a tradition which doesn’t belong to them. That this place isn’t their own. Paradoxically, this is why the Apollo is New York’s most appropriate rock and roll venue. “Here comes the sound,” Pierce sang. “The sound of confusion.” No kidding.
Which reminds me: The second wily advantage of invoking “God” in your songs is that it tends to imbue nigh-unforgivable lyrics with the appearance of graver meaning. After all, who but a benevolent, decidedly patriarchal deity could listen to a pair of apathetic looking Brit-Poppers sing a line like: “Baby you set my soul on fire…” or “Please Lord/ may I be wrong/ 'cos women are right/they are not young” with neither spite nor smite?
Besides fifteen hundred white, middle-to-upper-class indie-fans, that is.