Five years since the last Spiritualized release, J. Spaceman returns with the album nobody thought he would live to make. Shortly after he started writing songs for this album, Jason was hospitalised with a serious bout of pneumonia and spent two weeks hooked up to a ventilator. His near-death experience has inspired him out of the rut he had fallen into with the previous two albums, and "Songs in A&E" is the most moving and consistent record he has recorded since 1997's "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space".
The overall sound of this record is positive and life-affirming, and it sounds as if Jason is in control again rather than just letting things develop around him as he has done on previous albums. His voice is also much more prominent, instead of being hidden behind layers of gospel singing, as on 2003's "Amazing Grace". The gospel choir is still there, but it is used more sparingly now - to emphasise Jason's contributions rather than to mask his lack of ideas as they seemed to be doing on the previous album.
The lyrics are one of the most interesting aspects. Many of the songs seem to deal with themes of mortality but Jason claims to have written them before his spell in hospital. So, did he foresee his own brush with death? I must admit I've always enjoyed the sonic bliss of Spiritualized over the lyrics as Jason does have a tendency to sing about his drug use above everything else, or at least use drug clichés ("getting high", "coming down" etc.) as metaphors for other aspects of his life. As many of you will know, I'm not keen on people who take drugs and boast about it just to fulfil their idea of a rock & roll lifestyle. As I've always enjoyed Spiritualized's music, I usually try either to ignore the lyrics or to come up with alternative interpretations that map onto my own (drug-free) experiences. However, I've spent a lot of time reading the lyrics of "Songs in A&E" and marvelling at the ambiguities, as I wonder whether Jason may now be considering a healthier way of life. He certainly seems to be expressing his love for his family, and maybe even promising to turn his back on drugs, but if you listen to the songs again you start to wonder if the fire inside his soul (from "I Gotta Fire") and the flame that burns in his heart (from "Sitting On Fire") are chemically rather than emotionally stimulated. The latter song in particular made me think of the potential double meaning in Lou Reed's "Perfect Day", which seems at first to be a romantic song about spending a day with a loved one, but anyone who's aware of Lou's history will immediately start to suspect that it's heroin that gets him through the day.
There is further mystery in "You Lie You Cheat", where Jason appears to addressing an old rival and waiting for them to fall. But with the overall positive tone of the rest of the album, I like to think that he's actually speaking to himself, perhaps blaming his former drug-taking self for his recent problems, and telling himself to move on from his past life.
Whatever the intentions behind the lyrics, I hope Jason stays healthy and inspired long enough to bring us another record of this quality.
As with previous albums, "Songs in A&E" is available in a number of unusual formats, including a book, a DVD-style case and (the version that I bought) a rather garish green vinyl edition: