16 June 1997 was a memorable day for new releases. On that day, two of that decade's finest albums were to take up shelf space for the first time. While Radiohead's 'Ok Computer' would go on to garner acclaim from some as arguably the finest album ever made, it was the other record released on that date which most tweaked musical ears.
'Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space', Jason Pierce's epic, bittersweet symphonic masterpiece, was many a music fan's album of 1997. It would go on to top that year's prestigious NME Album of the Year poll - not an inconsiderable feat given that it was not only up against 'Ok Computer', but also The Verve's 'Urban Hymns'.
Step forward 11 years later and all three of those acts are still making considerable waves on the musical landscape. Radiohead's excellent 'In Rainbows' is rightly regarded by many as their best record since 'Ok Computer'; The Verve are on a well-received comeback tour and in the process of making an album which is, by all accounts, the equal of its phenomenal selling predecessor; while Jason Pierce has, literally, almost come back from the dead to make his best record in over a decade.
Dedicated to the staff at The Royal London Hospital, 'Songs In A&E' arrives five years on from its predecessor, 'Amazing Grace', and three years on from Pierce's near-death experience after spending time in an intensive care unit suffering from double pneumonia.
Much of the album, however, according to Pierce, was written before his illness and eerily he has said that, in returning to work on these songs, he felt like they had in some way predicted his ordeal. Either way, the feelings and emotions which flow through the songs prior and post-illness, mirror that of the heartbreak which was woven through 'Ladies and Gentlemen...'
As you might expect, 'Songs in A&E' is a reflective record, and thus quite lush and mellow. For the most part, Pierce abandons loud, guitar-distorted riffs and feedback noise in favour of something much subtler. Unlike 'Ladies and Gentlemen...'s follow-up, 'Let It Come Down', he also holds back on the really big string arrangements, a restrictive nature which typifies Spiritualized's best work. Here, strings are used to shade and colour the sonic landscape rather than dominate it.
Opener 'Sweet Talk' deals with the Iraq war as Pierce sings: "And you say where do you stand on the war/You stand right where you stood before/As far from the bullets and bombs as they fall," before singing "You sweet talk like an angel/But you're driving this blind." Under a lush arrangement, though, it is also a song which could be construed as one of love.
'Death Take Your Fiddle', obviously references Pierce's time in hospital and conjures up eerie feeling, not least because it features the sound of the frontman breathing through a respiratory device, making for the sound of a man about to indeed hear that fiddle.
'I Gotta Fire' meanwhile comes across like a more chilled-out 'Come Together' before 'Soul on Fire' demonstrates Pierce's gift at penning miniature singalong symphonies as he sings: "I got a hurricane inside my veins/And I want to stay forever."
'Sitting on Fire' marks another symphonic work of genius baring some resemblance to 'Broken Heart' off 'Ladies and Gentlemen'. It's a gorgeous love song that has echoes of Daniel Johnston and is strengthened by a tender, fragile vocal from Pierce that sings of love from a previous relationship encroaching on the current. Peppered with whispered, almost inaudible moments, it builds to a stunning orchestral conclusion.
Like 'Ladies and Gentlemen...' Pierce breaks up the record, shifting tack at intervals signposted by a series of six scattered harmonies. 'Yeah Yeah' is rollicking garage rock, before Pierce wades in with some fantastic trademark distortion on 'You Lie You Cheat', though crucially the noise never threatens to mask the melody.
The record ends with subtle, mini-anthems such as 'Borrowed Your Gun' and 'The Waves Crash In', which are again gorgeously arranged tracks and indicative of the record's overall mini-symphonic feel.
When looked back upon, 'Songs in A&E' may well be regarded as Pierce's real master work, over even 'Ladies and Gentlemen...'. It may lack some of the variety of that work, but certainly fans of the lusher moments on 'Ladies and Gentlemen...' ('Broken Heart', ' Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space', 'I Think I'm in Love') will find this album essential. Another genuine triumph.