Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space wasn’t necessarily the album Jason Pierce wanted to make, but rather the album he needed to make. As co-founder of psychedelic drone rockers Spacemen 3 along with Peter Kember (AKA “Sonic Boom”), Pierce concocted a whirlwind of guitar feedback that recalled both the Velvet Underground at their noisiest and poppiest and the relentlessly driving kosmische music of Germany in the ‘70s. At the height of their popularity, relations between Kember and Pierce were at an all-time low, exacerbated by a cancelled American tour, managerial problems and creative differences. The band’s dissolution in the early ‘90s gave way to a project fully driven by Pierce.
Christened Spiritualized, Pierce set out to combine the ear-splitting noise rock of his former act with the Phil Spector wall of sound treatment — gospel choirs and orchestral strings clashing with blasts of violent guitar. 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, his third album under the moniker, frequently, and sometimes abruptly, veers from the serene to the chaotic and back again. Teetering between contrasting emotions and musical moments, the hypnotic swirl directly reflected Pierce’s own personal life at the time, which was defined by the unraveling of his relationship with fellow bandmate Kate Radley (who plays keyboard on this album) and a quickly-developing addiction to heroin.
Drugs have always been an integral part of Pierce’s musical life. His prior band’s mantra was “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to,” and he makes no bones about his addictions. In the queasy whirl of “I Think I’m in Love,” he mutters, “Love in the middle of an afternoon/ Just me, my spike in my arm, and my spoon” over organs and fuzzy guitars that drift across the stereo width, a lolloping bass holding everything together.
These darker moments are usually fleshed out into a fresh concoction of freeform jazz and the wailing feedback. Like an oncoming panic attack, “Home of the Brave” squiggles a jet stream wall of guitars that drifts directly around Pierce’s admission that, “When I’m not with her, I’m not all myself/ Sometimes have my breakfast right off of a mirror/ And sometimes, I’ll have it right out of a bottle.” “The Individual” follows, howling like My Bloody Valentine at their most ear-splitting and Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s most abstract, a near-relentless assault of the sensibilities and emotions turned up to eleven.
Meanwhile, “Come Together” is The Stooges halfway into a psych sax freakout, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” sleigh bells included, all powered along by a heaving drum beat. The ferocity of Spiritualized’s music is heavily tempered by Pierce’s tranquilized delivery, as he often sounds as if he is drowning under the tsunami of sound. “All of My Thoughts” finds him whispering secrets (“Don’t know how to sleep on my own/ ‘Cause all of my dreams are of you”) between bouts of wailing harmonica and bold explosions of drums.
Pierce’s brash honesty is matched by the music’s tenderness, resulting in sometimes rather sweet sentiments amidst heartache and druggy weariness. “All I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away/ Getting strong today/ A giant step each day,” chants Pierce over the album’s gentle title track, a soft lullaby that draws upon Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” waltzing through cascading melodies and countermelodies before fading out to the refrain of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love”: “Wise men say only fools rush in/ But I can’t help falling in love with you.” While the album’s original release didn’t include the quotation, Presley’s estate eventually gave in and it was restored in a 2009 reissue. The orchestral drama of “Cool Waves” mirrors similar sentiments, wrapping itself full of rich harmonies repeating, “Cool waves wash over me/ Cool water running free/ Lay your sweet hand on me/ ‘Cause I love you.”
“Cop Shot Cop…” closes things with Pierce at his most sinister, a snaking vocal melody over an intense, fiery build-up of noise like a rocket burning upon atmospheric entry. “If this is heaven, well, you know that I’m not happy here/ ‘Cause heaven ain’t any place where you’re not there,” chants Pierce over one last barrage of distortion.
Celebrated upon its release, Ladies and Gentlemen… was named one of the best albums of 1997 despite stiff competition from the likes of Radiohead, Bjork and The Prodigy. Pierce has since performed the album in its entirety by bringing together a huge cast of gospel choirs and string sections in order to recreate his lush songwriting and arrangements. A momentous album 20 years on, Ladies and Gentlemen… is Pierce’s hymn to both hedonism and heartache and a powerful reminder of the cathartic power of music.