October 05, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
We gave it an A-

As we’ve all learned lately, hope is a fleeting, elusive phenomenon: One minute it’s around the bend, the next it seems hundreds of miles away. You struggle with it, reject it, return to it. Spiritualized headmaster Jason Pierce—or J Spaceman, as he prefers to call himself—appears to know this better than anyone. In interviews and on disc, he’s been persistently open about his love for chemical stimulation: ”Me and a spike in my arm and my spoon,” he sang on the British band’s 1997 creative turning point, Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space, an album that also exalted the healing powers of love. (In addition, it gave the band a foothold in this country; the title cut was featured in a Volkswagen ad.)

But Pierce has never dealt with his affinity for drugs and his creeping concern about the altered state they induce as directly as he does on Let It Come Down, Spiritualized’s fifth album. He does tend to wallow in his lifestyle: ”If I am good, I could add years to my life/I would rather add some life to my years,” he boasts wearily in ”Out of Sight.” He mocks rehab programs in the borderline-juvenile ”The Twelve Steps” (”I was very nearly clean, y’know/’Cos I only had twelve steps to go”). On ”The Straight and the Narrow,” he’s anything but: ”The trouble with the straight and the narrow/Is it’s so thin I keep sliding off to the side/And the devil makes good use of these hands of mine.” But perhaps because he’s a new parent, he also realizes his precarious situation: On ”Won’t Get to Heaven (The State I’m In),” he begs the Lord for ”one more chance…I believe I’m damaged/I believe that I’m wrong.”

Pierce’s lyrics are just one of the ways in which Let It Come Down is a startling, and startlingly good, record. Since Spiritualized rose from the ashes of Spacemen 3 in the early ’90s, their ethereal music has always stood out from that period’s guitar-dominated Britpop. Their last album, 1998’s erratic Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997 Live, was a double-disc concert album recorded with an orchestra; in a sense, you had to admire them for fearlessly attempting such an inflated, retro art-rock device. But working with a largely overhauled edition of the group, as well as nearly 100 classical musicians and choral singers, Pierce sets on even loftier goal for Let It Come Down, one of the most ambitious records out this year. A big, lumbering, and often uplifting symphonic-rock piece about being a wastrel, it’s as if Brian Wilson had made Pet Sounds a decade later in the midst of his bedridden, drug-addled despondency.

Like Wilson and Phil Spector, Pierce, who plays guitars and keyboards, knows a rapturous pop melody when he hears one, and he knows how majestic it can sound with tons of sound around it. Let It Come Down aims for a blend of classical pomp and bleary-eyed rock, and for the most part, the former dominates; the tracks are a series of stately processions. They start quietly and then build, with each verse and each additional string section and choir, to something else: ”Stop Your Crying,” a song of consolation, to a straight hymn, ”Don’t Just Do Something” (Pierce’s take on ennui) to a blend of the orchestral and Dean Martin cocktail pop. The Beach Boy element is particularly pronounced on ”Do It All Over Again,” in which Pierce struggles between offering supportive words to a lover and just preferring to do nothing. His voice, a deep, grainy instrument, adds to the dusky atmosphere.

As many have learned before, art rock can be a boondoggle. And sure enough, Let It Come Down heaves and groans under the burden of its aspirations. The mix can grow too congested, resulting in a muddy wall of sound. This approach particularly hurts ”The Twelve Steps” and ”On Fire,” rockers that feel weighed down. (One of the few clearly heard effects on the former are the sirens, so lifelike—and familiar of late—they freaked me out.)

Yet despite the album’s flaws, not to mention a musical premise that veers toward bombast, Spiritualized find beauty in the battle between optimism and gloom, an especially timely message. By the last song, ”Lord Can You Hear Me,” Pierce has moved beyond caustic remarks and is intoning ”Lord, help me out/I’d take my life but I’m in doubt/Just where my soul will lie.” He sounds as if he means it. On Let It Come Down, Pierce wants to continue partying like it’s 1999, but he’s also begun living up to the name of his band. A-

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