While some people imploded in the lockdowns and isolation of the epidemic, others were thriving. “I felt like I’d been in training for this my whole life” said J Spaceman in a text conversation last June or so. He was referring to his fondness of isolation and when you reframe loneliness as “beautiful solitude” then it isn’t so bad.
He would walk through an empty “Roman London” where “even the sirens had stopped singing” and where the world was “full of birdsong and strangeness and no con-trails.” He used the birdsong walks to listen and try and make sense of all the music playing in his head. The mixers and mixes of his new record, a ninth studio album, weren’t working out yet.
Spaceman plays 16 different instruments on Everything Was Beautiful which was put down at 11 different studios, as well as at his home. Also he employed, more than 30 musicians and singers including his daughter Poppy, long-time collaborator and friend John Coxon, string and brass sections, choirs and finger bells and chimes from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. So, there’s a lot going on.
“There was so much information on it that the slightest move would unbalance it, but going around in circles is important to me. Not like you’re spiraling out of control but you’re going around and around and on each revolution you hold onto the good each time. Sure, you get mistakes as well, but you hold on to some of those too and that’s how you kind of... achieve. Well, you get there.”
Eventually the mixes got there and Everything Was Beautiful was achieved. The result is some of the most “live” sounding recordings that Spiritualized have released since the Live At The Albert Hall record of 1998, around the time of Ladies & Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space.
The opening track “Always Together With You” is a reworking / supercharging of a track originally released in demo quality in 2014. This new version is a perfect Spiritualized song; a breathtaking, hard edged, psychedelic pop tune where themes of high romance and space travel collide. In one of the most sublime refrains of the band’s career, the backing singers call out “if you gotta lonely heart too”. And don’t we all? Sometimes?
On “Best Thing You Never Had”, we meet characters who blew their mind but “never had a mind to blow” over backing instrumentation that sounds like a New Orleans funeral procession band who’ve been drinking thinners all night. It’s possible this Stones at Exile-era stomp is auto-biographical, but maybe not. It’s hard to remember.
“Let It Bleed (For Iggy)’’ is heavy eyelids and the romantic intricacies of emotional intimacies, a honeyed song that careers into choir-fueled intensity. A country number “Crazy” is even sweeter, a lorazepam Tammy Wynette ballad with backing vocals by Nikki Lane.
Spaceman: “When we were mixing, I relied a little bit on what I knew of Ladies And Gentlemen..., that if you start throwing mixes together, it stops sounding like what you already know from the past. Some people have a method of making records like jamming Lego bricks together into something they already know but I wanted to do this differently.
“And like the last record (And Nothing Hurt) was made to go out and perform live, we did the same thing with this, but even more so. We’ve tried to play stuff from this album live before but it never really worked but now we’ve got the record how we want it to be, we have something to launch from.”
Of all the songs on Everything Was Beautiful, the three contained on the b-side are the ones that already sound close to the intensity of Spiritualized’s live shows. The final piece of the recording process involved adding some clarinets and vocals to give “it all a sense of proper chaos”.
Spaceman wrote the lyrics to “The Mainline Song” one night while watching the protests happening in America on TV. And if that track is like driving your car too fast with the one you love in a city you've never been before, then the following tune The A Song (Laid In Your Arms)” is driving that thing off the edge of the world.
A stupendously epic tale of “words that are old as the hills / cooked on a diet of mushrooms and pills / One man’s crime is another man’s thrill and we’re gone”, it’s a mountainous song, a glorious noise; screeching sax, clarinets, free jazz, improvised chaotic squall, a seething mass of Spaceman rock and roll and its seven minutes are over far too soon.
The last (nine minute) tune “I’m Coming Home Again” recalls the atmosphere of “Cop Shoot Cop” from Ladies and Gentlemen; a brooding, repetitive, swamp song, building and building, abetted by a choir to get deeper and darker over time, with lyrics like: “I’ve kind of had it with philosophy cos I’m thinking I am but I’m failing to be”.
“The last track was always the thing that the record, hinged around. I wanted it to be almost like a dub, something that just hung in the air. It develops quite slow and it seemed to be an almost easy option to sort of make it a really screaming free form thing but it's kind of restrained and held back and it just kind of hangs.”
It hangs, it floats and then it’s over. And you can go back and do it all over again because there are so many layers and layers of sound in this thing that to listen to it once would be selling yourself short.
The artwork is designed once again with Mark Farrow. If you buy the vinyl you can pop a pill box out of the sleeve, revealing gold foil underneath, and assemble the Braille-embossed little thing and put it somewhere in the house. The box set has 8 of them. Literally a boxset. It looks more beautiful in the flesh.
About the boxes: “Farrow and I were talking about what we should do and we just said, ‘It’s called Everything Is Beautiful, how could you not have a pill?’”
All these layers, all these details, the year-long mixes, the making sense of it all and the lives lived within these lyrics; for somebody so famously unconfident of his own abilities, isn't this a punishing thing to keep doing?
“Yeah, but I like what I do. There’s a line from Jonathan Meades that’s about having all the attributes to being an artist. ‘Paranoia, vanity, selfishness, egotism, sycophancy, resentment, moral nullity and more idiot than idiot savant.’
“And that's what it feels like, this kind of thing. You’re your own worst enemy and biggest supporter. There's a ‘Of course this is worth it. It's me’ and then this kind of deep doubt of ‘What the fuck is this all about?’ And then ‘Why is it important?’ and then knowing there's no easy answer. But it's there. I know it's there.”
[Andy Capper, Sept 2021]