I’ve been toying with the possibility of doing more reviews of the Peter Gabriel edition of Genesis and Peter Gabriel’s solo work ever since my review of Genesis’ Nursery Cryme two-and-a-half years ago. I opened that review with a passage that still holds true for me today:
Genesis is a band worthy of study because their work combines the best and worst tendencies of progressive rock. In the four albums featuring the “core” band (Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway), you will hear both stunning masterpieces and some of the most pretentious nonsense imaginable. Peter Gabriel in particular will drive you mad, as he careens from brilliance to preposterousness on a single album, a pattern he would reliably reproduce throughout his solo career.
After a long period of dicking around, I finally had to conclude that Peter Gabriel triggers the Goldilocks side of my personality. Most of his work is “too” . . . something or another. Because I’m a girl who can never get enough heat, I would sum it up by saying none of his albums are too hot, some are too cold and some are way, way too 1980’s.
Us is the album I find closest to “just right.” It’s not perfect, and there is one song in particular I find deeply offensive, but its obvious strengths outweigh the few glaring weaknesses.
What is unusual about Us is that it’s an emotionally honest work from a man who seemed to go out of his way to mask emotion through ornate poetry, clever bits of phrasing and obscure symbolism. The album features some of his most purely beautiful works and (lucky me) one of my favorite sexual posing songs ever, one I save for extra special erotic occasions. As he did for all his solo albums, Peter brought in an ever-expanding list of both big names and scarcely known but very talented musicians from all corners of the world to make contributions. Despite the challenges in managing a seeming cast of thousands, the end result reflects discipline and diversity, seamlessly integrating sounds and influences from Senegal, Ireland, Russia, Armenia, Scotland, India, Turkey, Kenya, Canada, France, the USA and the UK.
The ingenuity involved in mixing diverse sounds from diverse sources is on full display in the mesmerizing soundscape of “Come Talk to Me.” The opening synthesized drone playing the base chord pattern is quickly relegated to deep background with the appearance of Northumbrian smallpipes courtesy of classic piper Chris Ormston. Bagpipes of all kinds have been used for centuries to instill spirit in those facing a challenge—the boys marching off to war, the mourners at the gravesite or competitors gearing up for the games. Here the pipes are played over a contrasting rhythmic background of sabar drums courtesy of The Babacar Faye Drummers to call up the courage it takes to deal with the challenge of mending a broken relationship.
Peter Gabriel was thinking of his daughter and the rift between them that grew as the result of a marital break-up, but the song’s brilliance comes from his ability to universalize the agony that accompanies the disruption of a lifelong connection. Sinéad O’Connor’s harmonies in the chorus seem to reflect his hope that his daughter is equally keen to close the chasm. The complex and shifting moods of such a situation are captured in the diverse instruments and voices that ride over the underlying drone throughout the song, most notably the melancholic sound of the duduk and the energetic vocals of the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble. I don’t know how Peter Gabriel managed to successfully combine these contrasting textures from different cultures, but the result is an inspired arrangement that works beautifully with the lyrical content.
The poetic structure is intensely revealing, for in the first quatrain of the first two verses, we find the Peter Gabriel we’ve come to expect—the guy who writes like the English major yearning for a spot in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey when his dust returns to dust. In the second quatrains, his language becomes more concrete, more immediate and by extension, more emotionally direct and impactful:
The wretched desert takes its form
The jackal proud and tight
In search of you I feel my way
Through the slowest heaving night
Whatever fear invents
I swear it makes no sense
I reach out through the border fence
Come down, come talk to me
After going through two more cycles where Gabriel feels the urge to feed his poetic beast prior to getting in touch with his emotions, he finally abandons the inner bard in an extended bridge for genuine, heartfelt interpersonal communication:
I can imagine the moment
Breaking out through the silence
All the things that we both might say
And the heart, it will not be denied
‘Til we’re both on the same damn side
All the barriers blown away
I said please talk to me
Won’t you please come talk to me?
Just like it used to be
Come on, come talk to me
The essence of the song is that simple cry for human communication and understanding, four monosyllabic words essential to human existence: come talk to me.
Peter gets even more personal in the confessional piece “Love to Be Loved.” The arrangement itself speaks volumes, combining a funk rhythm shimmering with gorgeous piano runs as he presents the symptoms, fading into a suspended string-laden section where drums and bass vanish as he digs deeper in an attempt to get at the root of the problem. The problem is hinted at in the first two choruses—the difference between wanting to be liked (accepted by society) and wanting to be loved (cherished for the true self). The challenge at hand is the timeless struggle captured in Gautama Buddha’s first two Noble Truths: the human condition is suffering; the suffering is caused by craving, desire and attachment:
This old familiar craving
I’ve been here before, this way of behaving
Don’t know who the hell I’m saving anymore
Let it pass let it go let it leave
From the deepest place I grieve
This time I believe
And I let go
Much to his credit and sense of humility, Gabriel’s dramatic monologue in the closing passage describes the discomfort in detaching oneself of those cravings and desires. He realizes that he is “losing such a central part of me,” then attempts to buck himself up by saying, “I can let go of it/You know I mean it/You know that I mean it.” That’s a clue to the listener that he doesn’t mean it, and finally he just says fuck it and opts out of the opportunity to achieve nirvana:
I recognize how much I’ve lost
But I cannot face the cost
Cause I love to be loved
Yes I love to be loved
I love to be loved
So do I, Peter, and so does pretty much everyone else in the world, whether they admit it or not.
The most purely beautiful song on the album is the second duet with Gabriel and O’Connor, “Blood of Eden.” The combination of duduk, violin and arpeggiated guitar creates a warm, tender and faintly melancholic foundation, and the relatively subdued voices of the vocalists help paint a soundscape of sacred ground. Though I’m anything but a Christian, I admire Peter Gabriel’s choice to use the symbolism of Adam and Eve as opposed to the dynamic of yin and yang. While both symbols represent the active-masculine/receptive-feminine dualism at the heart of the universe, yin and yang are abstract concepts while Adam and Eve represent flesh and blood. This is a sensual song celebrating the physical union of opposites, and when such a union involves genuine love and caring for the other, it takes on a spirituality of its own.
In this context, Peter seems to want use the sexual act to heal a souring relationship, an all-too common attempt to recapture that beautiful feeling of oneness—an attempt that usually causes both parties to go deeper into mourning over what has been lost. The song is structured in uneven verses (3-2-2-3, 3-2-2-2, 3-2), reflecting awkward communication and partial understanding. In the longer first verse, he admits all is not right within, contrasting his pursuit of deeper understanding with the crass materialism that surrounds him—almost wishing he could feel as secure as the normals do with their precious trifles:
I caught sight of my reflection
I caught it in the window
I saw the darkness in my heart
I saw the signs of my undoing
They had been there from the start
And the darkness still has work to do
The knotted chord’s untying
The heated and the holy
Oh they’re sitting there on high
So secure with everything they’re buying
In the second verse he defines his inadequacy in material terms (“I cannot get insurance anymore/They don’t take credit, only gold”), and admits how in his confused state he is incapable of accurate perception or understanding, unsure whether his partner is his destroyer or his savior:
Is that a dagger or a crucifix I see
You hold so tightly in your hand
And all the while the distance grows between you and me
I do not understand
As in “Love to Be Loved,” he breaks from verse structure to describe the attempt at physical reunion, crying out as the “moment of bliss” arrives. He then returns to the verse to compare his state to those consumed by consumerism:
I can hear the distant thunder
Of a million unheard souls
Of a million unheard souls
Watch each one reach for creature comfort
For the filling of their holes
The chorus has appeared between each of the verses, but truly comes to fruition in the extended fade, where the mingling of duduc and violin reach an evocative peak expressing infinite beauty and infinite sadness:
In the blood of Eden lie the woman and the man
I feel the man in the woman and the woman in the man
In the blood of Eden lie the woman and the man
I feel the man in the woman and the woman in the man
In the blood of Eden we have done everything we can
In the blood of Eden, so we end as we began
With the man in the woman and the woman in the man
It was all for the union, oh the union of the woman, the woman and the man
“Blood of Eden” is an immersive experience, a song both enchanting and achingly sad, one that touches me at the core of my soul.
Then again, it’s also a lot of fun to feel the temporal but thrilling joy of carnal desire, and “Steam” does that for me every fucking time. People who have dismissed the song as “Sledgehammer II” are either idiots or idiots with no concept of eroticism, but idiots all the same. “Sledgehammer” was Peter Gabriel’s tribute to soul music, a song marked by slick production and dumb lyrics lacking any hint of adult sexuality. “Steam” is about the heat and nothing but the heat because sometimes all that fucking matters is the heat.
“Steam” is certainly available for my fuck playlists, but I save it for those nights when I’m really feeling it in my tendons, nerves and nether regions—when my inner thighs glisten with anticipatory wetness as I get ready for the scene—when pictures of realized and unrealized fantasies stream through my brain—when my nipples and clitoris turn rock hard, ready to explode and explode again before I’ve even made contact with my partner—when I know it’s going to take hours to release all the tension coursing through every fiber of my being and I look forward to savoring every fucking minute—and when I make my entrance in full leather and riding crop with tits and crotch exposed but agonizingly out of reach, you’d better fucking . . .
I’ll leave the six minutes of posing to stutter-stop guitar, pounding drums and the seriously hot Gabriel-Lanois horn arrangement to your naughty imaginations.
“Only Us” is clearly post-orgasmic, with Tony Levin’s dominant bass guitar maintaining the strongest connection to the rhythms and impulses of steamier moments. After the intensity of the first four tracks, the piece feels more like an intermission than a thematic extension, though the lyrics do present the theme of finding solace from “the great escape” of daily life in the arms of another (to be explored in more depth in the album closer). Gabriel also follows George Harrison’s lead in paraphrasing from the Tao Te Ching, reaffirming the notion that “the further on I go, the less I know,” linking that wisdom to the spirituality of intimate physical contact.
Next up is Gabriel’s attempt at creating a late 20th-Century spiritual, “Washing of the Water,” but the tropes he uses (the river, water as a symbol of purification) are as ancient as ancient gets. The lyrics repeat the theme of solace in sexuality (“Let your waters reach me, like she reached me tonight”) and the psychological flaws that lead us to fear genuine human connection. Some listeners might find the translation of these themes through the lens of spiritual music more accessible, and there’s no doubt that the pain Gabriel describes is genuinely felt.
Peter Gabriel being Peter Gabriel, he had to spend some time exploring the dark side of human nature, and I suppose you could say he does this successfully in “Digging in the Dirt,” where he attempts to empathize with a psychopath wallowing in the experience of severe toxic masculinity. According to Songfacts, “This song evolved out of a project where Gabriel studied inmates on death row to find out what made them kill.” What Gabriel learned is this: “When you have self-knowledge, you don’t fall into the same behavioral traps. One of the keys is—take responsibility. Blaming anyone else, especially in relationships, is a futile activity and not going to move you forward.”
Uh-uh. You know what, Peter? I don’t give a shit about your pop psychologizing, and I wish you would have given a whole lot more attention to the trauma suffered by the victims of these poor boys rather than wasting your time trying to understand them.
Shit. Here comes my #metoo moment.
When I was twenty-three, I was abducted at knifepoint by such a man, who forced me into his car and drove me to a relatively isolated spot on the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay one summer night. I don’t want to go into the details, but I took advantage of the fact that the asshole’s brains were in his dick and managed to escape with relatively minor physical injuries. The psychological trauma of the event was far more serious, aggravated by the cynicism of the men on the police force who dismissed my tale as another date gone sour. Like Elizabeth Warren, I persisted, and eventually managed to convince the district attorney’s office to pursue the case. This poor, poor boy was sentenced to a few years in jail where he probably spent his time learning from the pros how to become a more successful rapist and murderer.
Excuse the fuck out of me for not feeling a single bit of empathy for that sick fuck.
I find “Digging in the Dirt” a disgusting experience, a completely worthless effort by an entitled entertainer who has the financial means to piss away his money exploring the dark layers of his persona through psychotherapy while ignoring the psychological devastation these deviants leave in their wake. To add insult to injury, Gabriel admitted to The Daily Mirror that the song “was probably the hardest one to do on the album because it was written around a groove and it just didn’t make sense at first. I was really missing the bass and drums.”
Missing the bass and drums? That qualifies as a difficulty? Any thought to the difficulties faced by the families who will never recover from the murder of a family member? Or the difficulties of the women who feel the need to leave the lights on when they go to bed at night? Or the women who have heard “This time you’ve gone too far” so often that they instinctively curl up into a ball to minimize the impact of the beating they’re about to take? Fuck you and your definition of “hard.”
I’m not surprised that “Digging in the Dirt” went to the top of the charts in one and only one country, the toxically masculine United States of America. Personal feelings aside, the song sticks out like a deformed penis in the context of an album celebrating love, union and the desire for close contact. My Us playlist excludes this piece of shit, and listening to it three times in the process of writing this review was an experience I never want to repeat.
Let’s move on to The Rothko Chapel in hot, humid and oily Houston, Texas, the source of inspiration for “Fourteen Black Paintings.” This meditation begins tenderly with Levon Minassian’s duduk solo, where he produces a marvelous tone on this ancient double reed instrument, mingling spirituality with earthiness. The sparseness gives way to an electronic ensemble heavy on bass tones designed to express in musical terms the feeling evoked in Gabriel’s visit to the chapel. The background also serves as a platform for Gabriel’s model of progressive change:
From the pain come the dream
From the dream come the vision
From the vision come the people
From the people come the power
From this power come the change
With the world tilting towards authoritarianism today, this seems terribly naïve, but perhaps hope will spring again someday. As a mood piece, though, “Fourteen Black Paintings” is very effective.
“Kiss That Frog” was surprisingly released as a single, even though it’s a fundamentally dumb song that attempts to soften its cuteness with nudge-nudge-wink-wink references to oral sex. The single went nowhere, just like the song. The Peter Gabriel who wrote this turkey was the Peter Gabriel who wanted to be liked, and I hope its chart failure taught him a valuable lesson.
The album closes with “Secret World,” where Gabriel finally returns to the central theme of love as a prerequisite to true happiness. Here he also echoes a theme that appears frequently in rock music throughout the years, the idea of a loving relationship serving as a refuge from an often hostile society that denies both love and individuality. Jack Bruce touched on it in “I Feel Free,” PJ Harvey in “One Line,” The Bee Gees in “Holiday,” Ray Davies in “Waterloo Sunset,” to name a few. Gabriel’s take on the refuge theme is quite different, however, as he points out that the secret world of refuge can also become a claustrophobic environment if the lovers fail to tend to the essentials of trust and open communication by holding secrets within the confines of the secret world. He also moves away from the symbolism of Adam and Eve as the ultimate form of union, likening a collapsing relationship to the period after the fall:
In this house of make believe
Divided in two, like Adam and Eve
You put out and I receive
Down by the railway siding
In our secret world, we were colliding
In all the places we were hiding love
What was it we were thinking of?
The arrangement features a multitude of instruments that have no business communing with one another, but the melding of Mexican pan flute, dobro, cello, guitar and various products of programming never sounds crowded, thanks in large part to carefully attenuated dynamics. When I’ve communed with fellow musicians who like to do their own thing through software, I encourage them to listen to Us as a sterling example of superb modern musical arrangement.
Often brilliant and occasionally oblivious, Us remains my favorite Peter Gabriel album with my favorite Peter Gabriel song (“Blood of Eden”). I have to admit that I like “Moribund the Burgermeister” almost as much, which reveals one of two things: a.) my range of musical taste is completely bizarre or b.) Peter Gabriel is a remarkably talented individual who refuses to be limited to a specific playing field. Although I often find myself frustrated with some of his tendencies and choices, I have to give him credit for his lifelong willingness to push the boundaries of what’s possible in music.
While you could make the case that both Blur’s shift to a distinctively American sound on Blur and the much-anticipated but ultimately horrid Oasis production Be Here Now should earn serious consideration as “the album that killed Britpop,” I have to go with Pulp’s This Is Hardcore as the coup de grâce.
To be fair, Britpop had pretty much run its course anyway. If you define the Beatlemania era as the period between “Please Please Me” and the last concert at Candlestick Park (The Beatles had already moved on, but the fans hadn’t), you’re talking about a little more than three-and-a-half years. Assuming Britpop covered the period between the first Suede album and the second Supergrass album, the phenomenon endured for about four years (and no, I don’t consider The Verve a Britpop band). Britpop had lasted longer than the psychedelic era and the original British punk movement, so it really was time for a change.
My selection of This Is Hardcore for this symbolic honor-of-sorts is based on a combination of factors. While Britpop was full of trenchant social criticism and black humor, it rarely crossed the line into dark and depressing. This Is Hardcore was described by its lyricist as “Songs about panic attacks, pornography, fear of death and getting old.” The music feels more like a film noir soundtrack, and Jarvis Cocker’s self-portrayal echoes the seedy loser archetype of noir films, someone like the hapless, hopeless Walter Neff in Double Indemnity.
I never thought I’d compare Jarvis Cocker to Fred MacMurray, but the shoe fits.
As he did in Different Class, Cocker wrote about what he knew: his own life. The difference is that he wasn’t a Britpop superstar when he crafted the lyrics to Different Class, and the experience he writes about in This Is Hardcore is of a man traumatized by fame, addicted to coke and desperately trying to find a piece of solid ground somewhere in the universe. If The Cure hadn’t already used the title, Pulp could have titled the album Disintegration and no one would have thought it inappropriate.
It didn’t help matters that Russell Senior had left the band, taking his first-class musicianship and artistic discipline with him. While This Is Hardcore has its moments, the album is marked by some very poor arrangements, some really bad ideas and occasionally sloppy execution that makes one miss the tightness of the band on His & Hers and Different Class. Senior’s absence is most strongly felt when Pulp attempts to compensate for his violin by increasing the use of electric guitar. Not only does the shift compromise Pulp’s signature sound, but the guitar tones on the album are frequently annoying.
The performance issues extend to Jarvis Cocker’s meandering vocal performances. Sometimes he finds the right tone, but every now and then he sounds like he’s suffering from a very bad cold (or maybe too much snow up the nose), and on a couple of occasions you’d think David Bowie had popped into the studio to do a guest turn at the mike. Oddly enough, the instability of his voice adds to the general pathos of the album, so in a curious way it successfully reinforces the disintegrative mood.
The lyrics also fall well short of the standards established by Different Class. There isn’t much in the way of wit on This Is Hardcore, nor are there many memorable lines. As for those who might excuse the lyricist on the basis that Cocker’s dark mood hampered his facility with the English language, I would point out that the best lines in Shakespeare come from the tragedies—especially Macbeth, the darkest of the lot. Somewhere in the midst of his wild ride through stardom, Jarvis Cocker lost his negative capability—the perspective of detachment Keats accurately identified as an essential factor in the creation of high-quality poetry. When Cocker wrote about his life experience on Different Class, he wrote with self-deprecating detachment. On This Is Hardcore, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that he is still too immersed in the experience and trappings of sudden fame to make any sense of it, often crossing the line into self-confessional melodrama that would have been more appropriately shared with his therapist.
This Is Hardcore doesn’t entirely lack value. If you listen to it through a film noir lens, the experience becomes more engaging and (for the most part) tolerable. A more informative angle is to view the album as a documentary detailing the impact of fame on the artist and the art. Through that perspective (and by considering the narratives of most of the other Britpop bands), we realize that Britpop died out for the same reasons that caused nearly every rock era to meet its demise: the unreality of celebrity, the disconnection from everyday life and the people who live that life, and the hopeless attempt to cope with the surrounding madness by turning to drugs.
I will give Pulp credit for making a clear statement of intent with the opening passage of “The Fear,” an ominous, funereal segment that represents a clean break from the energetic presentation of Different Class. Jarvis takes the stage as the character of man-falling-apart, alternating between short bursts of self-awareness and an apology to fans hoping for Different Class II:
This is our “Music from A Bachelor’s Den”
The sound of loneliness turned up to ten
A horror soundtrack from a stagnant waterbed
And it sounds just like this.
This is the sound of someone losing the plot
Making out that they’re okay when they’re not
You’re gonna like it but not a lot
The exposure of pretense (“making out that they’re okay when they’re not) is the most powerful message, an enduring indictment of the stigma attached to mental health and addiction problems—a stigma that makes it difficult to address those problems with any reasonable possibility of success. I cringe at the first two lines, though, which send a signal to the listener to expect a whole lot of self-pity to come into play.
Up to this point, Pulp is appropriately working in a minor key (A minor), a reliable means of communicating unpleasant emotions. After introducing the chorus with pure lyrical filler (“and the chorus goes like this”), they manage to ruin both mood and continuity by shifting to a major key, as if to say, “Hooray! We’re scared, lonely and temporarily celibate!” They make it even worse by adding a trio of female background vocalists singing their hearts out as if the heavens have burst open and the angelic hosts are proclaiming their asses off in the blinding light and ecstatic joy of The Resurrection. Let me correct Mr. Cocker here: THIS is the sound of someone losing the plot. I lose all interest at this point, easily tuning out the embarrassingly uninteresting lyrics, waking up only to feel quite annoyed at the superfluous introduction of weird electronic noises that must have seemed okay to the band but they’re not.
Jarvis then goes full nasal and seriously off-key in the male-as-masochist-in-a-dying-relationship tune, “Dishes.” Though he doesn’t exactly compare himself to Jesus, he uses the fact that “I have the same initials” as a basis for the Christ-related metaphor of the miraculous transformation of turning water into wine. It’s a torturous connection at best, and the mention of the crucifixion in the last verse is a serious stretch:
And I’m, I’m not worried that I will never touch the stars
‘Cause stars belong up in heaven
And the earth is where we are
And aren’t you happy just to be alive?
You’ve got no cross to bear tonight
It’s really difficult to believe that the man who wrote “Common People” could have come up with such empty lines, but there’s the evidence, right there, in plain view.
The rough start continues with “Party Hard,” where Jarvis does a second-rate disco-era Bowie imitation accompanied by intensely grating guitar tones. He makes a bad vocal even worse by applying a vodocoder to his voice to the randomly-appearing line, “Baby, you’re driving me crazy,” which also describes the way I feel when listening to this piece of crap. The only couplet that hints at a possible method behind the madness is “I was having a whale of a time until your uncle Psychosis arrived/Why do we have to half-kill ourselves just to prove we’re alive,” the poetic equivalent of using a sledgehammer to drive home the obvious.
Things do get better on the next track, but in the interests of balancing my evaluation, I’ll share a divergent opinion. Here’s Russell Senior’s recollection of what led to his departure:
For years, we spent a lot of time in Transit vans. But suddenly it was all gold discs, condos, famous mates and people whose reality comes from cocaine, telling you you’re great, night after night. I felt a revulsion for it. We were doing songs about common people and it was, “Jarvis, Prada’s on the phone, they’ve got your outfit.”
The last concert I did with Pulp was a corporate gig for a lager company in Barcelona. We were put up in a fantastic hotel, there were supermodels hanging around, but we were playing for bored executives. I felt myself backing away.
There were other things, such as awards ceremonies where somebody’s coke dealer has nicked your limo and you have to walk home because the record company are looking after Jarvis. We had become his backing band. Previously, the music always came collectively, from creative clashes, but I think Jarvis believed his own press and suddenly he was coming in with his own tunes. I didn’t think “Help the Aged” was worthy of following “Common People,” so I sabotaged it by playing blues guitar in the studio.
The Guardian, “The Ones that Got Away,” June 1, 2009
I agree that “Help the Aged” falls short of the standard set by “Common People,” but that song was the ultimate impossible act to follow. One of Jarvis Cocker’s most admirable qualities is the willingness to write songs about taboo topics, and in our youth-obsessed culture, getting old is one of the worst crimes a person can commit. Though sometimes the lyrics drift into Public Service Announcement territory, the empathy he expresses on behalf of these often-forgotten people is admirable:
Help the aged
‘Cause one day you’ll be older too
You might need someone who can pull you through
And if you look very hard
Behind those lines upon their face
You may see where you are headed
And it’s such a lonely place
I also whole-heartedly endorse the lines, “It’s time you took an older lover, baby/Teach you stuff, although he’s looking rough.” The couple who trained me in BDSM were twice my age (in their late 40’s at the time), and one of my favorite fucks is a guy in his 60’s.
Now that is a Public Service Announcement!
This is the one song on the album that demands I heap praise on Mark Webber’s guitar work, which alternates between sweet-and-lovely on the quiet verses and kicking ass on the Pixie-esque choruses. Though I wish they’d completely dispensed with the sore thumb bridge with Jarvis’ superfluous stutter, I consider “Help the Aged” one of the stronger arrangements on the album.
The title track is an even stronger musical composition, though credit for that goes to Peter Thomas, whose 1966 composition “Bolero on the Moon Rocks” was used as the central theme. Thomas is still with us at the age of 93, and while the bulk of his work involved sci-fi and horror soundtracks for television and film, this piece has a late-noir feel that would have been a good fit for 60’s noir films like Shoot the Piano Player or The Naked Kiss (most apt in this context, as the film is about a traumatized prostitute). Borrowing this remarkable piece of music could be considered a Pulp masterstroke; on the flip side, it shows that the band was running out of ideas and inspiration (or, as noted by Mr. Senior above, the band was no longer a collaborative enterprise).
The mood of the piece is smoky, reeking of debauched sexuality. As it turns out, Jarvis Cocker was watching a lot of porn in hotel rooms during Pulp’s commercial peak—oh, the glamorous life of a pop star!
‘This Is Hardcore’ is a bit about fame, actually… I ended up watching a lot of porn – hah! – on tour. If you get back to the hotel and you’ve got nothing to do, you put the adult channel on and have a look… It’s the way that people get used up in it. You’d see the same people in films, and they’d seem to be quite alive, and then you’d see a film from a year later and there’s something gone in their eyes. You can see it, that they’ve done it all and there’s nowhere else to go. There seemed to be something really poignant about that to me. (Q magazine 2012 interview)
Nice spin, but there’s scarcely a whiff of poignancy in the lyrics. There is an emphasis on the mechanical, impersonal production of porn (“then that goes in there/then that goes in there/then that goes in there/and then it’s over”), but really very little about what is “gone in their eyes.” Truth be told, Cocker sounds like your typically lonely lecher who watches these badly-acted, phony sex shows and fantasizes about someday directing a porn film himself:
You are hardcore, you make me hard
You name the drama and I’ll play the part
It seems I saw you in some teenage wet dream
I like your get-up, if you know what I mean . . .
I’ve seen all the pictures, I’ve studied them forever
I want to make a movie, so let’s star in it together
Don’t make a move till I say “action”
Oh, here comes the hardcore life
Bottom line: wake me up when the instrumental-only soundtrack version comes out—I’d buy it in a heartbeat. As for the rest, it’s obvious that Jarvis Cocker learned nothing while watching adult entertainment, so I hope he at least got his rocks off.
The “we’re all in this video together” theme continues, with “TV Movie,” a lost-love song with lyrics summarized quite nicely within the song itself: “All I know is I can’t even think/I can’t even think of anything clever to say.” I’ll second that motion! The arrangement is quite odd, featuring an acoustic guitar with unpleasant electronic residue on both channels for intro and first verse, followed by a leisurely build that never quite reaches a climax. Once the song vanishes into no one’s memory (except for the guy on Stereogum who thought it was the best thing Pulp ever did), we get “A Little Soul,” where Jarvis Cocker calls up the father who abandoned him in childhood and has him deliver a dramatic monologue to his now-adult son. This song has been singled out for praise by some reviewers; what I hear are clichés (you look like me, don’t grow up like me) and a son’s understandable resentment about abandonment that unfortunately negates any effort to understand the father’s motivations or circumstances. As Cocker was way too close to the subject matter to provide anything in the way of insight (such as filling us in on what he learned from the experience of abandonment), the song falls short in terms of emotional impact (unless you were abandoned by a parent in your childhood and can fill in the gaps). The pleasantly dull music is an exceptionally poor fit for what should have been a more thoughtfully constructed composition.
One could say that the moral of the story in “A Little Soul” is actually played out in the following song, “I’m a Man.” While it’s not the most original title, the song does capture Cocker’s thorough disgust with the cultural definition of maleness:
With your advertising sliding past my eyes
Like cartoons from other people’s lives
I start to wonder
What it takes to be a man
Well, I learned to drink
And I learned to smoke
And I learned to tell
A dirty joke
Oh, if that’s all there is then there’s no point for me
All very well and understood, but as in so many songs on This Is Hardcore, Cocker doesn’t dig any deeper, listing these most superficial characteristics as if he were filling out the grocery list. The question he poses—“So please can we ask why we’re still alive?”—is a throwaway, broad-brush question that ignores the truth that despite cultural programming, many men pay little or no attention to the all-powerful he-man image propagated by myth and modern advertising. I have few problems with the music, and from a structural perspective, “I’m a Man” is a solid piece of work. But what the hell is that noise that appears initially in the first chorus—is that a badly-distorted guitar or an electric kazoo? Whatever it is, it makes the song feel like more of a joke than a credible statement on masculinity.
If you’ve got eight-and-a-half minutes to kill and want to experience what it’s like to truly piss away your time, have I got a song for you! “Seductive Barry” is as complete an embarrassment as one can imagine, with Cocker playing off singer/rapper Neneh Cherry’s stereotypically seductive vocalizations as he embraces the role of egomaniacal lecher. If this is supposed to be satire, it lacks the bite; if it’s supposed to be an attempt to set the sexual experience to music, it’s fucking pathetic. I hereby nominate “I will light your cigarette with a star that has fallen from the sky” for the most ridiculous line in history, and tell you that when I’m done listening to this song, I want to run away from Jarvis Cocker as speedily as possible and take a long shower to cleanse myself of his disgusting aroma. Worst. Pulp. Song. Ever.
Jarvis Cocker’s strongest vocal on the album can be heard on “Sylvia,” an intriguing story of latent yearning for the unattainable beauty of a young man’s adolescence. The image of that long-lost Helen causes the narrator to insult a prospective partner (“You look just like Sylvia/Well, you look like her to me”), add injury to insult by launching into an extensive monologue about Sylvia’s likely whereabouts, and wrap things up by engaging the invisible Sylvia in a conversation (by this time, the prospective partner has probably left the table to call the police). What’s intriguing about what seems a narrative disaster is the hint that Sylvia was the victim of sexual abuse on the part of her father, an interpretation based on this sequence:
Her father’s living with some girl
Who’s a year younger than her
She’s living in the country now
Oh, she’s trying to get better
Her beauty was her only crime
The narrator then reveals that it isn’t only the lingering attraction that draws him to Sylvia but also the guilt that comes from the awareness that he too had questionable motives in his pursuit of the girl (though not of the predatory kind):
Who’s this man you’re talking to?
Can’t you see what he wants to do?
He thinks if he stands near enough then he will look as good as you
Oh, he don’t care about your problems
He just wants to show his friends
I guess I’m just the same as him
Oh, I just didn’t know it then
With genuine passion, Cocker sings the words he wishes he could say to Sylvia if she really were there, attempting to alleviate her misplaced sense of guilt and validate her self-worth:
I can’t help you but I know things are gonna get better
And please stop asking what it’s got to do with you
Oh, keep believing ’cause you know that you deserve better
The arrangement features strong build, good old-fashioned Pulp tightness and a very effective guitar solo in just the right tone (hooray!). While I think the lyrics could have been a bit more explicit, “Sylvia” is a definite plus, allowing Jarvis Cocker to explore one of those taboo topics where he is at his best.
“Glory Days” is probably the song that captures how I feel about most of This Is Hardcore: there are off-putting moments, occasionally brilliant lyrics, and promising possibilities that end with a thud. Cocker gives us Bowie AND the snow nose guy on the first verse, making me want to leap from my seat and rip the needle from the disc . . . but the line “and learn the meaning of existence in fortnightly installments” gets stuck in my head . . . so I press on to discover the best lyrics on the album:
Oh, my face is unappealing and my thoughts are unoriginal
I did experiments with substances
But all it did was make me ill
I used to do the I Ching
But then I had to feed the meter
Now I can’t see into the future
But at least I can use the heater
Oh, it doesn’t get much better than this
‘Cause this is how we live our glory days
And I could be a genius if I just put my mind to it
And I—I could do anything if only I could get round to it
Oh, we were brought up on the space race
Now they expect you to clean toilets
When you’ve seen how big the world is
How can you make do with this?
If you want me, I’ll be sleeping in
Sleeping in throughout these glory days
That is an excellent exposition of how the generation in power fills youthful heads with the unlimited possibilities that await them, then offers little in the way of help or real-world education to make any of those possibilities real. When your life is pure drudgery, what’s the fucking point? This is great stuff!
Unfortunately, the great stuff morphs into gibberish in the closing verse:
Yeah we’d love to hear your story
Just as long as it tells us where we are
That where we are is where we’re meant to be
Oh, come on, make it up yourself
You don’t need anybody else
And I promise I won’t sell these days to anybody else in the world but you
No-one but you (4)
Geez. I count at least three detours from the main narrative in seven lines. Foreplay without the orgasm really, really sucks.
And speaking of sucks—and we’re talking Yoko Ono-level sucks here—Pulp ends the program with “The Day After the Revolution,” fourteen minutes and fifty-eight seconds of sheer torture that leave me in a state of frothing madness. The song proper is a bloody mess, featuring noisy guitar, a frantic vocal and a barrage of disconnected lines mingling utter meaninglessness (“the revolution begins and ends with you”) with pathetic attempts at establishing artistic cred (“Bergman is over, irony is over”). Then, at the 4:52 mark, the band noise vanishes into background and we’re treated to a shimmery, synthesized organ sound for ten fucking minutes and six fucking seconds, interrupted only by Jarvis Cocker intoning the words, “Bye, bye” at the 9:56 mark. To pass the time, I started counting the overtones, grew bored with that after about a minute, and spent the rest of my time gnashing my teeth, wishing desperately to be transported to a more pleasant environment—something like Siberia in January or the Sahara in the summer.
Look. I don’t mind dark. It’s half the yin-yang of life, a valid approach to exploring the human experience. What I resent is dark done badly. And I firmly believe that Pulp simply had to follow Different Class with something that bore little resemblance. Had they tried to reproduce that experience, they would have essentially committed themselves to an artistically-limited formula. I support the attempt but bemoan the execution.
Pulp would return in 2001 with the far more coherent and satisfying album We Love Life, ending their run on a positive note. From a historical perspective, Pulp’s contributions definitely qualify as significant impactful, and I find it oddly fitting and curiously satisfying that the band that gave us the masterpiece of the era should be the band that symbolically laid that era to rest.