3 stars (out of 4)
"I am what I am," Spiritualized's Jason Pierce declares on his band's seventh studio album in two decades, more matter of fact than defiant.
Pierce has reason to be self-confident. He remains obsessed with certain sounds – the Velvet Underground's mash-up of noise and melody, German art-rock rhythmic trance, gospel ecstasy, orchestrated soul, free-jazz skronk – and he keeps reconfiguring them for each album. "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" (Fat Possum) is no exception, another variation on those go-to reference points that is by turns grandiose, melodramatic, joyous and doom-ridden. It's another one of those get-lost-between-the-headphones experiences that Spiritualized have been producing since their 1997 masterpiece, "Ladies and Gentlemen … We are Floating in Space," and Pierce wouldn't have it any other way.
The lyrical themes should be familiar: Drugs, death, God, redemption. They're orchestrated into musical dramas that ebb and flow for six, seven, eight minutes at a time. Pierce is a savvy producer; no matter how dense the arrangements – strings, horns and choirs piled atop guitar, bass, drums and keyboards – he leaves a clear path for the melody. Amid the chaos of strafing guitars and wailing saxophones, he gives us something to hum or sing along -- the amiable bounce of "Hey Jane," the little duet with his 11-year-old daughter that opens "So Long You Pretty Thing," the nursery rhyme sung by female voices at the close of "Headin' for the Top Now."
Pierce collapses despair and ecstasy; he's the weary, strung-out narrator who sees life only in extremes. He wants to be "saved" but doesn't see how. Self-pity elbows into the mix; "I won't get to heaven … I won't see my mother again," he laments on "Life is a Problem." There's nothing sappy or draggy about the music, though. It can be crushing and corrosive, with just a hint of sweetness and hope. That tension suits Pierce. No wonder he stays so resolutely on the same path.