Spiritualized's eleven-year career has been dominated by themes of God, love, and drugs, the latter a stubborn holdover from frontman Jason Pierce's previous rock band, Spacemen 3. While Pierce has never been very forthcoming to the press about his former battles with heroin, his music has always been rife with drug references that are exaggerated with typically British levels of comedy. It has inspired the album titles and packaging: Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997) came wrapped up like a giant pill in a foil blister pack, while the last album was called Let It Come Down (2001). Both were grandiose opuses assisted by large assemblies of symphony musicians brought in to magnify them to new hallucinatory heights.

Amazing Grace represents both a shift toward the divine (without going over the top) and a retreat into a basic garage-rock sound (in an interview with British music weekly NME, Pierce cited the energetic White Stripes as an influence). Aside from "The Power and the Glory," an orchestral cacophony that's only this side of passing as a Sun Ra Arkestra number; and the slow tension and strange sound effects that punctuate the creepy "Rated X," Amazing Grace doesn't share much on the surface musically with past efforts. The stylistic change is immediately evident in the opener, "This Little Life of Mine," which announces itself with a wall of guitar feedback. But Pierce's self-deprecating and morbid sense of humor is still in place: "This little life of mine/I'm gonna let it slide/I'm gonna let it burn/I'm getting sick of trying." "Lord Let It Rain On Me" finds him ready to turn his life over to his Creator with a vocal that's a mixture of bitterness and gentle acquiescence. It all sounds a lot more serious than when he was creating blissed-out songs that mimicked the drug-taking experience, but it's probably not meant to be taken literally.

Spiritualized's evolution has pissed off a lot of die-hard fans who prefer the more experimental ambient pieces of the past. Since being leaked on the Internet last spring, Amazing Grace has even become a source of the fallout between Pierce and his former record label, Arista, which led to its last-minute release through BMG subsidiary Sanctuary Records. But those who don't share such unrealistic expectations of Spiritualized may come away with a much better appreciation of its strengths.

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Tamara Palmer