Lurking on the edge of every great drug trip is the threat of death, the hint that one might never come down. Few musicians have captured that peculiar mix of euphoria and existential panic like Spiritualized's Jason Pierce, who, beginning with Spacemen 3's credo of "taking drugs to make music to take drugs to," has built his career on the sound of getting so fucked up that it feels like dying. But the new Songs In A&E; is the sound of rebirth: Barely surviving a bout of life-threatening pneumonia in 2005, Pierce spent time in the accident-and-emergency ward (the A&E; of the title), and it was only through working on the Mr. Lonely score for Harmony Korine—honored here by three instrumental tracks bearing his name—that Pierce regained the confidence to come back to the Songs he'd been forced to abandon.
How fortunate he did, because Songs In A&E; is Pierce's best work since Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space—and easily his most personal. While Pierce's haunting hymns have always been rooted in simplicity, most Spiritualized records have buried them under layers of feedback or gauzy stratosphere. Songs strips them down to their vulnerable core, with Pierce's voice sounding unnervingly ragged on confessionals like "Death Take Your Fiddle," backed by a mournful choir and the morbid whooshing of a ventilator. But even for an album whose final words are "funeral home" (on the heartbreaking eulogy "Goodnight, Goodnight"), there's still plenty of uplift, from the Can-esque freak-blues of "I Gotta Fire" and "Yeah Yeah" to the gospel sing-along of "Soul On Fire," which boasts one of the most stirring choruses Pierce has ever written. Death has never sounded so alive.