Back in the late ’90s, Spiritualized started making New Age music for hipsters — slow, dreamy minimalist pop that buried “oohs” and “ahhs” in a haze of studio gook. Then Jason Pierce, the band’s frontman, realized that if he really wanted to ascend to the astral plane, he might need a gospel choir or two to help him along.
The resulting record, 1997’s “Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space,” sloughed off the U.K.-based psychedelic group’s gauzier tendencies, supplementing spaced-out effects with gospel choirs and string sections. It’s this thread — a cosmic take on roots rock — that Pierce followed, with varying degrees of success, throughout the subsequent decade. He has struggled to balance his newfound impulse toward orchestral grandiosity with the ethereal simplicity of his songs, but on Spiritualized’s most recent album, “Sweet Heart Sweet Light,” he does just that.
On Thursday night, the band performed a two-hour set at the 9:30 Club, opening with the new album’s lead single, “Hey Jane,” which rides a Stones-y two-chord vamp into operatic abandon for eight minutes while Pierce and his companions piled on call-and-response vocals and sonic mulch in equal measure.
Spiritualized’s shtick is to re-create the ecstatic energy of church music in a secular environment by building simple melodies into powerful crescendos as Pierce ponders the link between mood-altering substances and spirituality. Since the band’s formation, some of the new-car smell has worn off of this “I’m taking drugs to get to heaven” narrative, but it’s Pierce’s trope to flog, since he was an early adopter, having started during the mid-’80s while playing in his previous band, Spacemen 3.
To that end, it’s fortunate that Pierce is still among the living. Over the years, he has evolved into alt-rock’s Keith Richards — a confessed aficionado of illicit substances who has served two recent stints in critical care, once for respiratory failure and, more recently, liver disease. But the wear and tear isn’t very apparent. Standing to the side of the stage, wearing sunglasses and white jeans, Pierce doesn’t seem to have aged visibly since the Clinton years.
On this tour, the band’s maximalist rock-and-roll is being delivered via a streamlined set-up — just two guitars, bass, keyboards and two backup singers. But the ensemble does a worthy job of representing the music’s rococo architecture. Spiritualized doesn’t jam, but there is an element of improvisation and spontaneity to its performances, which was well represented on the set-closer “Cop Shoot Cop.” Here the band clung to a bluesy piano groove — more than a little reminiscent of David Gilmour’s Pink Floyd contributions — before pivoting into a full-bore free-form freakout. Well, the band freaked out. Pierce remained subdued and unflappable at the edge of the stage. Maybe just a little spaced.