Spiritualized - Pure Phase
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Spiritualized's first two albums after Jason “J Spaceman“ Pierce and Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember dismantled Spacemen 3 over the course of Recurring tend to get overlooked in the wake of 1997's massive Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, a record so big in sonic scope and overt ambition that it immediately got labeled some sort of a concept album (it's not) and even more damningly a magnum opus. Ladies And Gentlemen... marks a point in Spiritualized's discography, one where the succeeding albums tend to be held up against it and found wanting and the preceding ones are often viewed as necessary but subordinate achievements on the route to Pierce's seventy minutes of glory.
That's the problem with magnum opuses—unless the artist in question really only does have one (and only one) shining achievement in their body of work, they tend to unjustly shut out the “lesser” works. Plenty of people know Lazer Guided Melodies and Pure Phase are “important”, but how many have searched them out? In the case of Lazer Guided Melodies, they're not missing as much—I have the misfortune of owning one of the copies where all eleven songs are sequenced as four long tracks and that quirk only emphasizes how pallid and homogeneous the tracks are. If it has a value, it's as the only Spiritualized album that shows the influence of Kember's increasingly abstract work and which could be called ambient music. Pure Phase exists somewhere between those dreamy, narcotic drifts and the more assertive, gospelized music of Ladies And Gentlemen..., and while the latter record is justly praised, Pure Phase may actually be a better album; certainly it is a more cohesive and exemplary one.
I don't say that lightly; if OK Computer is the record that started me buying and paying more attention to music, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is certainly the one that committed me to life as a fan, and still contains the outlines of a depressively large proportion of the music I enjoy today. But while it succeeds brilliantly as a series of musical set-pieces, leading up to the Ragnarök of “Cop Shoot Cop...”, Pure Phase works better as an experience.
There are two basic modes of song on it; the first is a breed of fluent, seemingly formless ebbs, often instrumental or nearly so, that take Lazer Guided Melodies' impressive tonal control and sense of restraint and flesh it out, blooming into Technicolour where the former effort too often remained sepia. These are often where Pierce's ever-present melancholia shows up; the stately “Let It Flow” may end with him declaring he would do it all again, but “The Slide Song” and “All Of My Tears” undercut that claim with an inexpressible ache. “Spread Your Wings” alone merits a reappraisal for Pure Phase; although similar in form, it is possible even better (although certainly not sadder) than Ladies And Gentlemen's “Broken Heart”.
Strewn throughout the album as counterpoints are louder songs; they're not any faster, and Pierce doesn't sing with any more vigor of emphasis than elsewhere, but instead of glide and flutter they're all gust and squall, often augmented with harmonica or saxophone. Pure Phase is deftly sequenced so that these songs always spring up right when the album and listener are in danger of lapsing into a stupour, so that (for example) the surging “Lay Back In The Sun” punctuates the end of the hypnotic “Electric Mainline”. As a result Pure Phase showcases both the doped, anesthetic grandeur that is bedrock part of Spiritualized's sound as well as the noise/space rock that is their more immediate side. No album after this would capture their disembodied weightlessness, even at their loudest, nearly as well.
Pure Phase starts with “Medication”, and while utilizing a quiet/loud dynamic in 1995 wasn't exactly revolutionary it succeeds as a marriage of the album's two moods. After a brief, dissonantly waltzing intro the first thing you hear is Kate Radley's two-note keyboard drone along with a soft, slowly throbbing tone (Radley is credited on the sleeve with all “tones, drones, tremeloes”). That tone, which will later occupy the whole of the title track, continually recurs throughout the record, often barely present behind the sound of the band and then moving into the forefront between songs as a brief pause. Those tones are so important to the band's sound here that they were released at the time as Pure Phase Tones For D.J.s on vinyl, and if you go to a Spiritualized concert even now you're likely to hear it starting the show and playing throughout. Having the same slow pulse underlie most of the music provides a unifying element that, whether because of the reticence of the drone or something more intrinsic to Pierce's songwriting, never feels forced.
That tone, alone with a production that as with Lazer Guided Melodies prevents any elements from sounding too clean or separate and immerses the listener in a tidal wash of sounds (especially on rockers like “These Blues” or “Good Times”), turns Pure Phase into something that's many time more than the sum of its parts. It's an album that really does sound best on CD where there are no breaks in the sound from beginning to end, a vast river that carries you along for over an hour without ever faltering or overstaying its welcome. It's maybe the quintessential Spiritualized album; it doesn't feel like as much of a Statement as Ladies And Gentlemen..., but the themes of Love, Drugs and God are all present and correct, if addressed in a much more casual fashion and leavened with bursts of good humour and happiness. Instead of “Cop Shoot Cop...” we end here with “Feel Like Goin' Home”, one minute of abstract, strafing sounds leading to the more stately, consonant twin of the waltz that opens “Medication”, strings glistening like neon. Finally, three minute in, the bass drops like a depth charge and we get not a middle but an ending—the song is pure, singular rise and fall and it is brutally effective as a closer.
There is slight room for improvement; the EP and single tracks collected on both volumes of Spiritualized's Complete Works show that “Lay Back In The Sun” improves with a minute sheared off, and “Electric Mainline” could probably stand to be twice as long. But that's just details; it's the essence of the work that impresses, and as a whole Pure Phase is the most satisfying experience Pierce has yet been able to produce in the studio. The Electric Mainline EP that preceded it bore the words “play loud 'n' drive fast”; here Pierce instead invites you to play loud and sink into the carpet, into a drone that sounds like it could last for forever and rich texture of Spiritualized's music.