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Houston, Icarus Has Landed (in Montrose)

Flying too close to the sun with Jason "Spaceman" Pierce

Just before and even a little after the release of Spiritualized's Let It Come Down, word out of London had it that this was to be Jason "Spaceman" Pierce's "rehab album." And song titles like "The Twelve Steps" and "The Straight and the Narrow" seemed to bear this theory out.

A pity that so few checked the actual lyrics of those songs. If they had, they'd know that his is not a rehab album, but the record of a man who has weighed sobriety in the balance and found it wanting. "I know I'm never going to find Jesus Christ / So I'd rather spend my cash on vice" is a sample from "The Twelve Steps," while "The Straight and the Narrow" finds Pierce warning us that "I don't fall off the wagon, you know / I take a dive and go as deep as I can go / Don't hold your breath because I'm coming up slow this time."

Another line from "Out of Sight" puts his hedonism in a tidy package: "If I am good, I could add years to my life / I would rather add some life to my years."

Ladies and gentlemen, Jason Pierce is still floating in space.
Ladies and gentlemen, Jason Pierce is still floating in space.

"It's like that dumb joke, isn't it?" Pierce asks in a phone interview. "One person says, 'I want to have a long life, so I've given up drink, smoking and drugs.' So his friend says, 'Then why do you want to have a long life?' "

On Let It Come Down, Pierce is willing to do whatever it takes to transcend his humanity, if only for the duration of a buzz. The album displays the hubris of Icarus, the foolhardy youth of Greek myth who flew too close to the sun on wings of his father's invention, only to fall to Earth when the sun melted the wax that held them together. Pierce starts the album echoing what must have been Icarus's ambitious last words and closes the record pleading (in a reprise of a song from his Spacemen 3 days), mantralike, "Lord, can you hear me when I call?" There was a concept in there somewhere, but Pierce fears it mostly got lost in the four-year shuffle that was the making of Let It Come Down.

"Initially it was going to be written as a round, like a canon, like a fugue," he says. "Some of the musical lines would be replicated, and some of the lyrical lines would repeat as well. But it ended up with these couplets of songs that had the same lyric in a pair of songs. There's the same idea, but if you say it in a different context in a different song, it doesn't necessarily mean the same thing."

The album was made with more than a hundred musicians. It started with Pierce singing into a Dictaphone, but before the sessions were over, the recording studio must have looked like a Cecil B. DeMille set. After transferring the melodies from the microtapes to a piano, Pierce arranged them for an orchestra of 21 strings, 21 horns, a couple of woodwinds, a harp and the 65-member London Community Gospel choir. "The idea was to record an album that was like a single session, where it was the harmonics and the lyrics that would carry the record rather than the effects used," he says. "There were no studio effects.' "

Such aspiration is fraught with peril. The potential for the rock and roll equivalent of flying too close to the sun -- a laughably bombastic catastrophe of Spinal Tappian proportions -- is always there. But Pierce sidesteps the minefield of pretension in two ways. First, he is firmly grounded in gospel, country and blues bedrock (even though before he's done he's blasted himself and the whole geological formation into orchestral space).

Second, his lyrics are as straightforward, personal and matter-of-fact as a conversation with a trusted friend. Pierce shuns the faux mystical trap that has ensnared many a musically ambitious rocker over the years. While the album does trade heavily in matters of the soul, it's no Tolkien-drenched lore for Mr. Pierce, thank you very much, no "Halls of the Crimson King" or hooded druids hopping around misty mountains. Rather, Pierce's urban hymns, with titles like "Won't Get to Heaven (The State I'm In)," sound as old, universal and plain-spoken as Library of Congress field recordings.

Winston Churchill believed that "short words are best and old words when short are best of all." Pierce likewise sticks to plain Anglo-Saxon. In a strange way, the album feels like a spacey update of the Ray Charles sound of the late '50s and early '60s, when Brother Ray was wedding simply worded honky-tonk chestnuts to big-band orchestras. "It's not about being clever," Pierce says. "There's so much lyric-writing that's about going as purple as you can go, so much so that they mean nothing, and thus they can mean almost anything to anybody. I try for a very basic use of language that's not dumb, but sort of primitive and poetic, like nursery rhymes. I think a lot of the best lines are simple, resonant things like, 'I'd rather go blind than to see you walk away from me.' "

And don't go calling Pierce a prophet. He doesn't believe in them. "So much music is people copying each other's ideas. There's pretty much nothing new to say," he says. "And it's always coupled with the bullshit lines that make artists seem like visionaries, like they're on to something new when they say, 'This is from the heart' or 'Music just floats in the ether and I just catch it.' "

Music may or may not float in the ether for us to catch, but albums like Let It Come Down can put us up there to find out for sure.

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