I'm relatively new to the music of Jason "J. Spaceman" Pierce, but in these fledgling months of investigation the word I'd probably use to describe my relationship with it would be "dubious." On the one hand, the simple, perfect melodies that comprise Sweet Heart Sweet Light are exactly the kinds of sugary auditory confections that back in the '90's made bands like Blur and Oasis millionaires, though these are linked by a smattering of broad but streamlined influences that would have been too controlled for the erratically adventurous former and too confusing for the stubborn, narrow-minded latter. But on the other, the streak of woozy, doped out self-pity that runs through the songwriting here gets tedious fast: "Sometimes I wish that I were dead/'Cause only living can feel the pain." An honest sentiment, sure; a frightening, brutal reality for some, sad but true. But while I don't expect every lyricist to be Tom Waits, I do expect the serious ones to be able to recognize cliches that they ought to have matured beyond, as writers, by age 46, and there's no cliche in rock music so boring by now as that of the sodden, tormented artiste trying to sort through issues with a guitar that he should be trying to sort through with a therapist. And yet the most redemptive element of Sweet Heart Sweet Light is how phenomenally hopeful it manages to sound in contrast to Pierce's various existential crises--it feels like the soundtrack to a fatigued loser with nothing to show for himself, beaten down from a life of disillusionment and failure, meeting God on his deathbed and being handed an invitation to spend eternity in pain-free bliss. That's a sound worth a few freebie cliches to me any day--hell, the song I quoted above is probably my favorite track on the whole record.
Maybe, that is; actually, probably not. More than likely it would rank a close second to "Headin' For the Top Now," an eight-plus minute opus that hinges on two chords, a fairly rudimentary shopping list lyric, and the sort of piercing atmospheric noise you might expect from a guy who calls himself "Spaceman." It's one of those tunes like Dylan's "Desolation Row" or Waits's "Sins of the Father" that runs well beyond conventional pop lengths but ends leaving you wishing there were still ten minutes of it left. To say the song builds would be a bit misleading, but it does swell--by the end, there's a greater urgency, a stronger tension, and a more tangible catharsis than you're led to expect from its plain, humble beginnings a mere eight and a half minutes ago. And, tactfully, Pierce's woes end up sounding cautionary rather than indulgent: "We're wasted all the time/And there's a thousand ways to cry/And in our haste to get a little more from life/We didn't notice that we'd died." It's not like he sounds prophetic--he doesn't, but in his voice is a combination of hipness, numbness, and coldness that allows the lyric to come across not as overly theatrical but as simple truth. And in keeping with the juxtapositional quality of the record, it rides out on that most dubious of musical entities, the children's choir, singing phrases like "Fixing, hustling/Pimping, cussing/Don't let the damage show". Thankfully this is more Nick Cave "Hallelujah" than Dylan "They Killed Him," sonically, working the magic trick of a massive wall of sound disappearing to reveal an entourage of chirpy little voices that have somehow managed to stay pure through all the tumult. It's a good trick, and probably a better metaphor for the song's underlying message than I suspsct Mr. Spaceman was aware.