Spiritualized @Sydney Opera House (2/12/2012)

October 10, 1997. Spiritualized are playing London’s Royal Albert Hall in support of their third album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. To the side of the stage a man stands in front of a speaker the size of a bus. The volume coming from the unit’s black mesh is immense and yet he stays there all night. With a beatific grin he alternates between trying to give the speaker a cuddle and making numerous attempts to climb inside to the heart of the noise.

I suspect he has ingested nothing other than sound because Spiritualized are masterful alchemists. Their potent mix of notes and light induces a physiological response akin to being utterly wasted on something very illegal. In a communal environment, in a place laden with glorious artistic history, hearing them is an immersive, transcendent experience. All the big questions about God and existence and love and music trump the prosaicness of our mundane lives bogged down by money, work and responsibility.

Not bad for a band whose output revolves almost entirely around the banalities of Jason Pierce’s highly indulgent heroin habit.

Fifteen years on and Sprititualized are playing another hallowed institution, but the circumstances at Sydney’s Opera House are somewhat different. The band has gone through numerous line-up changes (Jason Pierce is the only original member and to all intents and purposes is Spiritualized). Pierce has faced some tough challenges, not least of all two heart failures and a serious bout of pneumonia. By necessity, his choice of medication has changed from those that could kill him to those that will save his life.

His ability to successfully synthesise this revised state with his music has waxed and waned across recent albums (four since Ladies and Gentlemen). Sweet Heart, Sweet Light is the latest, written and recorded while Pierce was battling Hepatitis C and the type of prescription drugs that obliterate normal thinking. ‘Hey Jane’ and ‘Headin For The Top Now’ are points where the album revs its engine and for people like me (sniffy about newer material), their presence tonight is a “screw you” to negative expectations. ‘Hey Jane’, in particular, only two songs in and it embarks on the kind of drawn-out bombast normally reserved for endings and encores.

Blended with 1997’s ‘Electricity’, the old and new coexist in a way that lends credence to the circuitous route Pierce has taken over the years. He may till the same ground (old Suicide records, bits of improvised jazz and a handful of blues riffs) but for the most part it yields something that’s worth a listen. Unfortunately, that can’t be said for the batshit boring mid-section, a clutch of ballads that represent an attempt at straight-up pop music.

‘Freedom’, ‘So Long You Pretty Thing’ and ‘A Perfect Miracle’ are concerned with serious stuff: “I’m living on a prayer now, but I got no right to be here.” As the Bon Jovi reference would suggest their sheer ordinariness reduce Pierce to a peddler of maudlin sentimentality. Fifteen years ago, dalliances with drugs and self-destruction were Pierce’s muse. He stared down threats to his mortality with the kind of youthful arrogance that assumes death is something that happens to other people. In these three it sounds like recent experiences stripped him of his ability to make a connection with anything other than self-pity.

“The old and new coexist in a way that lends credence to the circuitous route Pierce has taken over the years”

The worst offender is ‘A Perfect Miracle’, a sorry simulacrum of the title track from Ladies and Gentlemen (played tonight only a song or two earlier). The gentle, rhythmic waltz from Ladies and Gentlemen clunks along to wince inducing lines like “my mind is a mess and I’ve changed my address” or something about teaching all the birds to sing all the love songs so they can sing them all to you (which frankly sounds like fucking horrible thing to do).

Despite the promising start, the set is finished for me. I sit there cross-armed and furrow-browed, refusing to clap stuff because it isn’t old. When ‘A Song’ (brand spanking new) swaggers in on a filthy glam rock bassline, rippling with the kind of insouance I assumed had long gone, well, yes you could rightly make the point about assumptions, asses, me being a prize dick and all that.

Still, no matter how much my preconceptions get kicked in the butt, nothing matches the arrival of ‘Electric Mainline’ (from 1995’s Pure Phase). The first peel of notes, the throb of the bass, the keyboard’s soporific drone; all reminders of the band that made the Albert Hall man want to sacrifice his eardrums to get as close as possible to whatever is was that made his head fry. As Spiritualized wind it up, tighter and faster, rapid-fire white light and intense graphics cause people to either fix their vision or look away for fear of vomiting. And in among it all sits Jason Pierce, impossibly static and impassive, sharing with us the very best his demons have to offer.