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Spiritualized

Oh, the places Jason Pierce--aka J. Spaceman--has been, and you can take that any way you'd like. The English psychedelic rocker-cum-avant bluesman has always been heaven-bound in his ethereal yet soulful musical incarnations--first as a principal in the drug-mythologizing Spacemen 3, and the last 15 years as the primary force of Spiritualized--but he was literally steps away from St. Peter's gates in 2005 after contracting double pneumonia. He had just found his muse for his next album; it would take two years before a fully recovered Pierce could re-engage with that project.

Songs in A&E may be Pierce at his most grave and heavy-hearted, but even the prospect of death hasn't shaken his ultimately life-affirming music. In "Death Take Your Fiddle," he incorporates the sounds of someone wearing an oxygen mask, their breaths taking longer than usual, but Pierce creakily counters that with a mortality-cheating refrain: "The way I feel now / death is not around."

In fact, juxtapositions abound in A&E , which continues the stripped-down aesthetic Pierce explored in 2003's Amazing Grace , but trades the garage bombast for mostly acoustic, classical and folk elements while retaining his signature spatial arrangements. The Southern gothic narrative of "Borrowed Your Gun" is scored symphonically; the country ballad "Don't Hold Me Close" features a clarinet. And somehow, Pierce deftly makes sense of it all. It seems the pharmaceutical bluesman has made the transition from astronaut to cowboy.

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