Album Analysis | Spiritualized - Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
On space-rockers Spiritualized's third album, they dove deep into extreme emotional states, lyrically and sonically.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space", says a telephone voice calmly, before the album of the same name begins. As dreamlike keys and the plaintive, layered vocals of Jason Pierce fade slowly in, you may notice a familiar chord sequence and melody. Pierce — the bandleader and mastermind behind Spiritualized — borrows from Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling In Love With You", the main hook of which is quoted throughout the entire track as Pierce layers his own words and melodies over the top of this familiar foundation. The song's most memorable original line, "all I want in life's a little bit of love to take the pain away" grabs you by the heartstrings while acting as a mission statement for an album that will explore love, loss, and loneliness in great emotional depth over the next seventy minutes. These grand themes explored in UK rock band Spiritualized's third studio album are backed by a kaleidoscopic mix of orchestral space rock, Britpop, shoegaze, neo-psychedelia, and gospel that makes albums like Dark Side of the Moon seem positively modest in scale.
The first, and title, track floats along like a zero-gravity waltz, all strings, synths, and gorgeous layers of vocals. The juxtaposition of Elvis' timeless classic with Pink Floyd-esque sound effects and '90s shoegaze production is as fitting as it is strange and as stunning as it is hypnotic. As soon as it is cut short by an electronic bleep, the bass-driven, brass-heavy assault of "Come Together" bursts in, leaving no room for contemplation.
The album's faster-paced, rockier songs like "Come Together" and "Electricity" race along like a paranoid, post-apocalyptic Primal Scream. As texturally maximalist the former is, and as driving the beat of the latter is, these tracks still seem set apart from the simple hedonistic rush of the many of the dance-inspired rock acts of the late '80s and '90s. Where "Movin' On Up" and "Loaded" were the soundtracks to ecstasy-fulled celebration, "Come Together" is the moment the existential dread creeps in - it still sounds like a party, but you're not entirely convinced the voices aren't all in the narrator's head.
Spiritualized had already released two impressive albums by 1997's Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. These first two LPs - Lazer Guided Melodies and Pure Phase - fit in well with the shoegaze sound of the early '90s that was demonstrated most prominently by bands like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, but came with their own distinctive sound - typified by repetition, layering, and reverb-drenched guitar and synth motifs. The rhythm sections are groovy and hypnotic, providing a tough backbone to Pierce's introspective daydreaming. Both of these albums are masterclasses in how to paint sonic textures that are mellow and ethereal as well as being driving and infectious when needed - however, Ladies And Gentlemen... took things to a whole new level, with even more ambitious structures and instrumentation (choirs and string and brass sections were used heavily, as well as instruments like the hammered dulcimer). The fact that Pierce decided to produce the album largely by himself (Brian Eno was initially approached but was busy with other commitments), with the help of guitarist John Coxon, only adds to how impressive an achievement it is.
"I Think I'm In Love" starts with a warm bed of spacey keyboards over which warm slide guitars move like liquid - the perfect audial representation of Pierce's blissed-out state of mind. The reason for this bliss is more concerning when listening to the lyrics:
"Just me, my spike in my arm and my spoon
Feel the warmth of the sun in the room
But I don't care about you
And I've got nothing".
When the layers of instruments build in the song's second half, and gospel-inflected backing vocals repeat the refrain "I think I'm in love", the sense that this love is both fleeting and chemical is palpable (although what love isn't?). Some self-awareness of reality, and the grimness of Pierce's situation, manages to prick like a needle through the dreamlike haze of the music - "I think I wanna tell the world / Probably not listening".
The songs on this album are — almost without exception — about drugs, heartache, and / or using drugs to cope with heartache. The gently keening two-chord lament of "Home of the Brave" suggests the underlying reason for Pierce's extensive routine of self-medication: "I sometimes have my breakfast right off of a mirror, and sometimes I have it right out of a bottle... I don't even miss you but that's 'cause I'm fucked up, I'm sure when it wears off that I will be hurting". Here he doesn't just sound dazed and heartbroken, he sounds bored — his medicine now as much a burden to him as the heartbreak he using it to escape from. The track that this one fades seamlessly into — instrumental interlude "The Individual" — is a barrage of drone-like guitar feedback and atonal brass screeching that sounds like the very depths of mental and psychological hell.
The theme of medication is reflected most brazenly on the album's iconic cover itself. Pierce, like many of his '90s rock peers, was no stranger to chemical indulgence (his previous band Spacemen 3 even released an album called Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To), a habit which transitioned from psychedelic exploration to nihilism and self-medication during the recording of Ladies and Gentlemen... The album's cover mimics a box of prescription pills, with the label "1 tablet 70 min" and a special edition even containing "dosage advice" and a foil blister pack.
The real-life circumstances behind this record leave little wonder what caused such a downward spiral. As Pierce was writing this album in 1995, his partner and band member Kate Radley (whose voice delivers the recorded message that introduces the album) left him to secretly marry none other than one Richard Ashcroft, frontman of Britpop chart-toppers The Verve. The fact that the same year, 1997, saw The Verve release their seminal Urban Hymns, not to mention Radiohead releasing their art-rock masterpiece OK Computer, left Pierce's album a little forgotten and overshadowed in comparison, commercially if not critically.
"All Of My Thoughts" explains calmly and straightforwardly the mental state that immediately follows a devastating break-up: "don't know what to do by myself, 'cause all of my time was with you". Ladies and Gentlemen... is as much an exploration of social isolation and lack of identity as it is a documentation of addiction and loss of love. Whereas Radiohead's 1997 album explored these exact themes with abstract imagery, cryptic metaphors, and lyrics concerning politics, technology, and homesick aliens, Pierce's words read like brutally-honest diary entries conveying simple, bitter truths that no amount of spaced-out effects or trippy soundscapes can obscure.
"Broken Heart", the saddest song on the record - and possibly of the entire 1990s - marries a weeping string section to more nakedly confessional lyrics: "though I have a broken heart, I'm too busy to be heartbroken". The end section places these magnificent strings front-and-centre, unadorned by Pierce's vocals, as the sheer despair of his situation sets in.
"Cool Waves", the album's most hopeful cut, seems like a much-deserved break between the ominous "No God, Only Religion" and the album's epic, seventeen-minute closer "Cop Shoot Cop". "Cool Waves", like the album's opening track, drifts along like an opiated lullaby, with Pierce gently cooing "don't let the world weigh heavy on your soul". Whether this is a drug-induced break from the angst or a genuine revelation is unclear, but it sounds sublime either way, as does earlier track "Stay With Me", where pleading vocals and twinkling, descending synth motifs waltz to a colossal drumbeat.
The brief emotional holiday of "Cool Waves" comes to an end when "Cop Shoot Cop" starts with the lines "hey man, there's a hole in my arm where all the money goes / and Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose", and stays just as cheery from then on. After alternating sections of languid desert-blues and interludes of pure atonal noise, the track fades out.
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space sounds like a document of fluctuating moods and extreme emotional highs and lows - not just those of an addict but from being a human on Earth who experiences love, loss, joy, and pain. The fact that this emotional odyssey is painted with such inventive and colourful production and instrumentation, veering from ambient bliss to glorious, chaotic noise and back, makes this collection one of the very best from a year that saw no shortage of groundbreaking albums.