As 2020 winds down, one of Canada’s alternative rock mainstays looks back – but only for the purposes of moving forward. As Our Lady Peace prepares to release Spiritual Machines II, the follow-up to their seminal 2000 album, it’s worth examining how the original holds up after twenty years.
By Bennison Smith
Age of spiritual machines
10 – 15 billion years ago,
the universe is born
– “R.K. Intro”
Ray Kurzweil’s tinny narration kicks off the Spiritual Machines album – and appropriately so.
Our Lady Peace’s fourth record is loosely based on Kurzweil’s non-fiction book: The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (1999). The popular futuristic work inspired the Canadian band to churn out this concept album a mere year after the release of their third record, Happiness… Is Not A Fish That You Can Catch (1999).
They did so with Kurzweil’s blessing, as well as his input. Kurzweil (credited as “R.K.”) recorded several passages from his book as brief spoken-word excerpts for use on the album. The excerpts serve as eerie connective tissue between the album’s ten musical tracks.
The panic of the future rears
You dig, you jerk
You find another way
– “Right Behind You”
Spiritual Machines is a lot of things.
Artistically, it takes Kurzweil’s vision of a digital future populated by machines that think, feel and pray – and then runs with it.
Considering its futuristic themes, the album’s release in the first year of a new millennium was a timely one.
As well, the album served symbolically as the end of an era for Our Lady Peace.
It is the last OLP album produced by Arnold Lanni, the producer who guided the band creatively beginning with their grunge origins on the Naveed (1995) album. Shortly after the release of Naveed, the band was catapulted into sustained commercial success.
Lanni produced all four of their early records and departed after Spiritual Machines. His replacement on the Gravity (2002) album was one Bob Rock (a name which never fails to provoke a reaction across the OLP fandom).
Save for a few tracks on Gravity, Spiritual Machines is also co-founder and lead guitarist Mike Turner’s last contribution to the band – for now, anyway.
Turner’s understated approach, along with his ear for melody and timing, helped to elevate the record to a creative high the band hadn’t realized up until then – and arguably hasn’t quite realized since. Listeners should pay attention especially to the penultimate track, “If You Believe” for an excellent example of Turner’s technical wizardry on the guitar.
Spiritual Machines represents the “old” Our Lady Peace, before the band chose another direction. And for that old OLP, it’s hard to think of a better send off than this record.
It’s also very interesting that the band, featuring an almost completely different lineup save for Raine Maida and Duncan Coutts, has chosen to embark on a sequel record with the upcoming Spiritual Machines II.
Like a machine,
I’ll fix you from the start
– “In Repair”
It is impossible to have a conversation about OLP without mentioning lead singer Raine Maida. Inevitably, such a conversation will turn to the topic of his voice.
Bassist Duncan Coutts recently acknowledged on an episode of Canadian Music Podcast that Maida’s voice is simultaneously the group’s “gift and curse.”
It is a gift because his distinctive vocal register can be instantly recognized by a listener, regardless of the style or tempo of the song Maida is performing.
For the same reasons, his voice is also a curse when the band is attempting to branch out creatively and seek new audiences.
Over his career, Maida has famously sung up and down the vocal range. Depending on the song and the record, he will sometimes sing in a deep, resonant baritone. Sometimes he will also sing in a falsetto so pronounced that the lyrics will become virtually unintelligible.
For an effective blend of both ends of the Maida scale, listeners can simply listen to his baritone and falsetto layered on top of one another in the verses of “In Repair.”
And how many times has your faith slipped away?
Well is anybody safe?
Does anybody pray?
Despite being a record about robots, Spiritual Machines brims with life.
“Life” is, of course, also one of the album’s big singles and a classic OLP radio anthem.
The life of the album begins with an urgent declaration of solidarity on “Right Behind You” and reaches its apex with “The Wonderful Future,” a song featuring bass and percussion that are evocative of a slow, but persistent heartbeat.
“The Wonderful Future” is a track with interesting subtext, which will be discussed in a moment.
I’m drowning inside your head
– “Are You Sad?”
For all its futurism, Spiritual Machines is still very much a product of the 1990s (i.e., on “Everyone’s a Junkie,” the lyrics contain a slightly dated reference to “endless television”).
The themes of the record, however, remain universal.
In the face of a seismic change, the record’s central narrator struggles to maintain their grip on their relationships to those closest to them. They offer solidarity (“Right Behind You”), support (“In Repair”), comfort (“Are You Sad?”) and express regret for what they couldn’t do (“Middle of Yesterday”).
The themes on the record are effectively conveyed by some of Maida, Turner and Coutts’ most proficient musical work – not to mention the work of then-drummer, Jeremy Taggart, whose distinctive performances behind the kit underpinned much of the band’s early success.
She needs to know I’m alive,
but I’m flesh and I tear
– “The Wonderful Future”
The burden of caring for other people, when their problems become your own, permeates tracks early on the record.
Caring for other human beings is a worthy cause. But it also takes a toll.
Meanwhile, by the end of the record, the narrative presents a contrasting vision with “The Wonderful Future” and its aforementioned subtext.
The song’s narrator seems to have begun a relationship of some sort with a spiritual machine. The relationship described in the song seems ethereal, maybe even vapid.
Where there were human bonds holding the narrator back earlier in the record’s narrative, they instead seem elevated by the bond they have formed with this machine, whether it be one of simple friendship or something else.
On “Middle of Yesterday” the narrator was full of regret for doing wrong by another person they once cared for. At that midway point of the album, they seemed to be hopeful for a resolution of some kind. But on “The Wonderful Future” they don’t seem to care anymore now that an angelic machine of some sort is in their life instead.
How we, as listeners, are supposed to feel about this narrative development is naturally open to interpretation. But it’s a significant note to end the album on before the last Kurzweil spoken word track (“R.K. and Molly”) is slipped in for good measure.
Does the album’s narrative imply that society itself is headed on a parallel path to the narrator regarding its relationship with technology, digitization and artificial intelligence?
And does that path represent an ascension as a society?
Or perhaps a downward spiral?
We will have to see if the band is up for tackling these questions – and more – on Spiritual Machines II in 2021.
Bennison Smith is a budding Our Lady Peace superfan. One of the highlights of his fandom so far was being asked multiple times to “please sing a little quieter” by fellow audience members at an OLP concert. Bennison’s fandom for OLP began in earnest with the Burn Burn (2009) album and has only grown since. He was pleased, but not terribly surprised, to be recognized by the Spotify algorithm for placing in the top 0.5% of Our Lady Peace listeners on their platform.
Bennison’s conclusive rankings of all things Our Lady Peace:
Favourite OLP album: Spiritual Machines (2000), of course
Least favourite OLP album: Healthy in Paranoid Times (2005)
Favourite OLP song: “Blister”
Favourite Raine Maida look: the long-haired days of the “Fear of the Trailer Park” tour circa 2002/2003