Pierce is still using large orchestras and choirs to take his Robert Johnson blues way past the crossroads, to vistas that are as endless as they are empty. He’s still singing his own rock’n’roll gospel: Jesus, fast cars, girls named Jane and Mary, pimps, death, fire, freedom, and God all show up, giving life to Pierce’s alternate-universe Eden, inhabited by Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, self-loathing, and a spitty syringe. He’s still his own genre— this tiny voice elevated by the super-church-sized arrangements in his head. “I want to make music that catches all the glory and beauty and magnificence, but also the intimacy and fragility, all within the space of the same 10 seconds,” Pierce has said. It’s a mad goal. But it’s also an inherently intriguing and universal one, just as ancient myths or Biblical tales can be. Pierce isn’t religious, but he uses Christian language and figures as a thematic shorthand. “As you have a conversation about Jesus, you know you’re talking to him about how it is to be fallible and question yourself and your morals,” he told me. “When I sing, ‘Help me, Jesus,’ you know I’m not asking for help fixing the fucking car.” Such an all-or-nothing attitude is risky, but that’s the whole point.
Pierce mixed Sweet Heart over eight drawn-out months under something of a drug-induced stupor. But it wasn’t the kind of drug-induced stupor Pierce is known for. At the time, he was being hit with experimental chemotherapy treatments to combat a degenerative liver disease. (Three doctors are thanked in the liner notes; Pierce is apparently OK now.) During this album’s creation, the singer referred to it as Huh?— a nod to his jumbled mental state. All of which would make one assume that Sweet Heart would be messy, fucked-up, and completely depressing. That is not the case. This is probably the most uplifting album of his career.