One of the most unpleasant aspects of entering the management ranks is that your bosses will always recommend their favorite business books. Luckily, I learned pretty quickly that you actually don’t have to read the damned things. All you have to do is skim a couple of chapters or glance at the liner notes to get the essence of any business book and dazzle your superiors with the meager nuggets of wisdom dispensed by self-styled management gurus:
Now Discover Your Strengths: Do what you’re good at (assuming you can find a job that pays for whatever it is you’re good at).
Situational Leadership: People are different and need to be managed differently. Duh.
The Leadership Challenge: Stuff your ego up your ass and listen to your employees. Double duh.
The Five Dysfunctions of Team: People can’t work together unless they trust each other and stop being assholes. Triple duh.
The tome I found most offensive was Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. It is neither amazing nor revelatory that human beings resist change. “The quicker you let go of the old cheese, the sooner you can enjoy the new cheese,” advises Dr. Spencer Johnson, ridiculous advice for people who happen to like cheddar and gag at the smell of gorgonzola. He assumes that all change is good, which is so far from the truth that I wonder if he received his doctorate from Trump University.
Yes, some people resist any change with every fiber of their being because they’re either too lazy or stupid to learn new things or see things in different ways. But what Dr. Johnson (who has a vested interest in kissing management ass) fails to acknowledge is that people who actually work in organizations resist change because most of the changes initiated by management are dumb fucking ideas.
Speaking of dumb fucking management, the suits at EMI didn’t like the idea that Blur wanted to move their cheese away from Britpop towards a post-grunge, lo-fi American indie sound. They were terrified that Blur’s stylistic metamorphosis would alienate their loyal fan base. Some argued that Blur were about to commit commercial suicide [gasp!].
Huh. A couple of years ago I would have said “Blur was” rather than “Blur were.” I’m sounding more and more like a Brit every day. I’m gobsmacked.
And that’s a good word to describe the reaction of EMI management to the news that the lead single, “Beetlebum,” went straight to #1 and Blur followed suit on the album charts. Blur also did reasonably well in the United States (#61), where “Song 2” made it to #6 on the alternative rock chart.
Though producer Stephen Street claimed that “Blur had decided that commercial pressures and writing hit singles wasn’t going to be the main consideration anymore,” a glance at the timeline suggests otherwise. Oasis had moved the needle on Britpop to a harder rock sound with Definitely Maybe and What’s the Story, Morning Glory?, becoming the darlings of the British music press in the process. Damon Albarn had already dismissed The Great Escape as a “messy release” and was looking for a way forward. Graham Coxon had gone into full rejection mode as far as Britpop was concerned, filling his ears with fourth-generation Pixies-influenced American bands and urging his mates to let loose.
The most noticeable difference is in the band’s attitude towards the music. Graham Coxon noted, “It was the first time we sort of jammed. We’ve never really jammed before. We’ve been quite white-coaty, overall about recording, like in a laboratory. Yeah, we did actually feel our way through just playing whatever came to our minds and editing, which was really exciting.” Modern Life Is Rubbish had already indicated the band could rock pretty hard when they felt like it; on Blur, they would devote a whole lot of recording space to letting it fucking rip. Sometimes the looseness goes too far, resulting in energy-sapping, self-indulgent crapola, and in the end, Blur is something of a mixed bag, more an escape from Britpop than a coherent artistic statement.
Speaking of Modern Life Is Rubbish, I have the same quibble with Blur that I did with that album: the selection of the opening track. In this case, my quibble may be more controversial because it involves the vastly popular “Beetlebum.” To put it as gently and respectfully as possible, I hate this fucking song. Perhaps it’s the dumb words (even Albarn couldn’t tell you what a beetlebum is); perhaps it’s the faux-sexy, heroin chic a la the Velvet Underground (Damon and Justine were in their “white period” at the time); or maybe it’s the obvious late-period Beatles influence—Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic claimed the song covers “The White Album in the space of five minutes.” I like The White Album about as much as I like “Beetlebum,” and though I don’t often agree with Erlewine, I think he was onto something here. “Beetlebum” is also something of an outlier, as it bears little sonic connection to the other songs on the album, and generally you want the first track to set the tone. I would have gone with “M. O. R.” or maybe “Movin’ On” to get things going . . . but I also could see “Song 2” if Blur had wanted something with greater shock value in the pole position.
Opening with “Song 2” certainly would have qualified as a statement, though not the statement Blur intended to make. Alex James told Q Magazine that the band was just fucking around, essentially satirizing heavy grunge: “It was kind of a throwback. We’d always done brainless rocking out, though maybe it’s not what we’re known for.” In this case, the satiric nature of the song completely escaped the listening audience, particularly in the U. S. where millions were still in mourning for Kurt Cobain. “Song 2” became an international hit, the song that finally broke the wall of ice between Blur and the U. S. audience. To this day, the “Woo-Hoo Song” is the first song that comes to mind when you play word association using the word “blur” with a Millenial yank. As one who loves gritty, dirty power, I have to say they pulled off the con with the necessary aplomb, especially Alex James with his madly distorted bass. With typical hyperbole, NME referred to the nifty opening as Graham Coxon’s “finest moment,” and while the strummed chords are certainly ear-catching, if a shitty guitar player like me can reasonably duplicate it, no way in hell is it Graham Coxon’s finest moment. Satiric or not, the song is an absolute gas, a Pixies-perfect duplication of soft-LOUD dynamics and grunge/post-punk form.
“Country Sad Ballad Man” is one of those songs that sounds charmingly quirky on first listen, but turns into something as welcome as a root canal the more you listen to it. As in “Beetlebum,” Albarn’s lyrics emerge from a heroin haze as he slips in and out of consciousness (“VIP 223/I had my chances/Or did they have me”). Coxon did notice the less-than-stellar lyrics Albarn contributed to the album, concluding that “he’d obviously gone off his head a bit more”. That’s a very polite interpretation—one could say that John Lennon was completely off his rocker when he wrote “I Am the Walrus,” but the delightful wordplay reminiscent of his two poetical works hardly indicates a songsmith completely disconnected from his language center. Albarn’s effort here is more like post-India Lennon, so let’s call “Country Sad Ballad Man” Albarn’s version of “Yer Blues” and move on.
The most energetic rocker on the album originated in the musical laboratory of David Bowie and Brian Eno while they were experimenting with the concept of writing several songs with the same chord progression while recording Lodger. If that sounds like a stupid idea likely to result in one helluva boring album, well . . . it’s theoretically possible to vary instrumentation, tempo, vocal style, and even genre to a point where the results might prove slightly interesting. I guess we’ll never know for sure, as only two survived to make it to Lodger: “Fantastic Voyage” and “Boys Keep Swinging.” Blur borrowed—no, flat-out stole—the chords and call-and-response pattern from “Boys Keep Swinging” to create their very own contribution to the repetitive progression movement, a song called “M. O. R.” (duly crediting Bowie and Eno after the long arm of the law stepped in). As to which is the more successful effort, Bowie wins by a landslide in the lyrics category but Blur takes home the gold in the rock-the-fuck-out race.
Graham Coxon’s intro to “M.O.R” is far more impressive to my ears than the intro to “Song 2,” flipping from strong clear picking to muted-string shuffle in a heartbeat. The build itself is pretty fabulous, with each instrument adding a little more tension in turn, the piano serving as a nudge to Albarn to step up to the mike. Damon breaks out of the fog to deliver a clear, clean vocal that rises in excitement as the band explodes in rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy. The lyrics aren’t half bad, reflecting Blur’s experience in the pop-star grind, likening the experience to the ups-and-downs of a relationship in the chorus:
Here comes tomorrow (Here comes tomorrow)
One, two, three episodes (Three episodes)
We stick together (We stick together)
Go middle of the road (Middle of the road)
‘Cause that’s entertainment (That’s entertainment)
It’s the sound of the wheel (Sound of the wheel)
It rolls on forever (Roll, roll forever)
Yeah, you know how it feels (Know how it feels)
Here comes a low (I’m a boy and you’re a girl)
Here comes a high (The only ones in the world)
Here comes everything (Like monkeys out in space)
Here it comes (We are members of the human race)
I don’t know what the monkeys have to do with it, but I love that line.
Albarn follows his solid effort on “M. O. R.” with an even more enthusiastically felt performance in “On Your Own,” a piece he would later refer to as the first Gorillaz song. Though still clearly imbued with rock sensibilities in the form of Coxon’s superb work throughout the piece, the drum machine (honorably handled by drummer Rowntree) hints of the repetitive beats of hip-hop, while the loosely-delivered, heavy-on-emphatic-rhyme lyrics are only loosely connected to the melody. The message in the lyrics seems to be “follow your instincts, for whether you wind up as prime minister or sucking your toes in the shade of a redwood forest, who gives a fuck because WE’LL ALL BE THE SAME IN THE END.” I rather like that message, because I’ve always suspected that our definition of success in life is as arbitrary as fuck. And I more-than-rather like the song—the laid-back feel is balanced by strong forward movement, with just the right amounts of this instrument or that vocal and not a peep more.
“Theme from Retro” has been described as “obligatory space-rock trip-hop,” something that presents Blur in dub,” and “an unyielding, lovely row. Like, say, a Blur B-side.” Those are phrases concocted by critics who couldn’t get their heads around it, had to call it something and decided that it was time for clever phrases. The title is actually quite informative: the words “theme from” imply a cinematic experience; in this case, a theoretical film entitled “Retro.” I can see this piece working in soundtracks supporting darker productions (what comes to mind immediately are the dystopian, alternative realities of Mr. Robot). The organ-synthesizer mix is brilliantly constructed to create a sense of “something wicked this way comes”, and Damon Albarn’s wordless vocalizations cause me to visualize being locked in a room with no lights and hearing voices on the other side of the door that I can’t quite make out, amplifying the frustration of feeling trapped. I’ve read that many people find “Theme from Retro” a bore; I think it’s one of the more successful experiments on the album.
The first solo Coxon composition and performance appears next in the form of “You’re So Great,” a lo-fi love song of sorts framed in stereo acoustic guitar with two disparate electric solos. The first solo is loaded with dissonance, as it sounds like Coxon is either using the ultimate in slinky strings or that he’s deliberately de-tuned the guitar and using his nimble fingers to approach but not quite reach the proper notes. The scene involves Coxon waking up, and that warped guitar sound mirrors exactly how I feel when I wake up—sort of like I’m walking on thick foam rubber while navigating this irritating thing called reality. “Tea, tea and coffee,” sings Coxon; “Coffee, coffee and a cigarette,” sing I, but either way, we’re on the same page. I have come to fucking loathe mornings, especially workday mornings.
What kind of species would create a world where we are forced to spend most of our time doing stuff we don’t want to do in order to earn the privilege of survival?
Mini-rant out of the way, we move on to “Death of a Party,” an effort that is simultaneously mesmerizing and off-putting. The music—a mix of lo-fi guitar, booming reverb-coated beats, hard-picked bass and Hammond organ on the horror film setting—establishes the perfect setting for a gothic funeral, underscoring the “death” in the song title. In keeping with the theme, Albarn sounds positively bored to be at this or any other party on the planet, but his I-can-hardly-find-a-pulse vocal, combined with dull lyrics short on sardonic wit, results in a tremendous chasm between band and vocalist. The frustrating thing is I don’t think he’s that far off—clip this phrase here, shift to a loud whisper there and he might have nailed it. As such, I’ll yearn for an instrumental version and hope to hear it in a soundtrack someday.
But definitely not as part of a soundtrack to a Bruce Lee movie. As a practitioner of the martial arts (recommended for all women who want to survive in toxic masculine cultures), I love the integration of physical and mental discipline I experience when I’m training, but have no idea why anyone would want to watch a martial artist for purposes of entertainment. Or a boxer. Or those idiots in whatever that fight club thing is. And I’m certainly not entertained by Blur’s tongue-in-cheek homage to the late Mr. Lee, my nomination for the longest minute and twenty-five seconds in music history—a stunningly undisciplined performance, rather like vomiting.
I have no idea what Blur were trying to achieve in “I’m Just a Killer for Your Love” except to fill the album with the requisite fourteen. The tagline bears no relationship whatsoever to the lyrics, something we’ve learned is not an uncommon experience on Blur. This time the lo-fi and prominent guitar string noise become quite irritating, and the song plods along like a heroin addict coming down from a high.
Huh. I wonder why.
“Look Inside America” is notable for combining bits of two of their more famous Britpop songs: “End of a Century” in the intro and “Country House” in the build. Once I get over the obvious similarities and get ready to enjoy the song . . . what the fuck is that? Orchestral support? Are you guys out of your fucking minds? And shit, there’s even a fucking harp waiting for us around the next bend! Gee, I hope Damon Albarn has something meaningful and important to say about his problematic relationship with the United States . . . uh, no. And he’s lying like a Trumpian bastard when he tries to tell us, “I don’t know if it means that much to me.” Bullshit! Graham Coxon, on the other hand, is ab-fab on this piece.
“Strange News from Another Star” feels more Bowie than Blur, a tale of psychic collapse in the context of dystopia a la Diamond Dogs. The source for the title (and mood) is a story by Herman Hesse, an author who also had little truck with reality. The music combines sweetly-played acoustic guitar, wild dissonance and sharp guitar echoes in one of the more ambitious arrangements on the album. Unlike the disconnection experienced on “Death of the Party,” Albarn’s lethargic vocal feels more in sync with the bleak landscape (and equally bleak lyrics). This one foreshadows Blur’s later explorations with electronica . . . one of their many shifts in style that more than a few listeners find frustrating.
The band gets back to down-and-dirty in “Movin’ On,” a pretty straightforward rocker featuring full power and Albarn’s voice channeled through a lo-fi filter. Coxon ramps up the effects pedals on his solo, which is one of his wildest efforts. It’s kind of like an updated version of The Byrds’ “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n Roll Star,” adjusted for changes in fashion:
We’re sticky eyes and sticky bones
You get no time on your own
You get a dose and get a ghost
You get it coast-to-coast
Dye your hair black
Get Satan tattooed on your back
Pierce yourself with a coke can
Put yourself in fake tan now you’re in a band
Ah, the glorious nineties and all that we pissed away in an orgy of nihilism.
The final curtain takes a long time to unfold as Damon Albarn relives his youth in Aldham, Essex in “Essex Dogs.” If you can make it through the factory-like soundscape (not the most pleasant listening experience), you’ll be treated to a Damon Albarn narrative poem that forms the best set of lyrics on the album. In an interview, Albarn described his hometown as “One of those burgeoning Thatcher experiments where they were building loads of small estates,” communities without souls, and with little for teens to do but fuck up the dreary sameness of it all:
I remember thinking murder in the car
Watching dogs somersault through sprinklers on tiny lawns
I remember the graffiti
We are your children coming near you with spray cans of paint
I remember the sunset and the plains of cement
And the way the night just seemed
To turn the colour of Orangeade
In this town, cellular phones are hot with thieves
In this town, we all go to terminal pubs
It helps us sweat out those angry bits of life
Those angry bits of life drove Essex (historically a Tory stronghold) to vote overwhelmingly for Leave (remind me not to schedule next year’s holiday there). Given his comparative lack of lyrical effort on the album, “Essex Dogs” reassured me that Albarn hadn’t gone completely to the dogs (pun intended) and still had a gift for writing vivid poetry with Keatsian negative capability (see a dozen other posts for an explanation of “Keatsian negative capability”).
Blur’s final fuck off to Britpop appears after several seconds of silence following “Essex Dogs.” On Parklife, Blur introduced an intermission midway through the album in the form of “The Debt Collector,” a village green gazebo piece with a real brass band . . . so very, very stereotypically British. On Blur, they place the intermission at the end, a pattern-breaking message all by itself. The faux string section struggles against bursts of dissonant guitar chords and a weirdly-fitting guitar counterpoint, described by Q’s Andrew Collins as “a distressed instrumental sign-oft that goes nowhere.”
A worthy competitor to Pulp’s This Is Hardcore as the album that killed Britpop, Blur is clearly a transitional album without a conclusion. Their next album (13) would still find them in transition, a production featuring a couple of echoes from Blur but much more introspective. None of the seemingly endless changes in style have in any way damaged relations with their fan base; 13 went immediately to #1 . . . as did Think Tank, as did The Magic Whip. While debate concerning the quality of their work from an artistic perspective is certainly valid, Blur certainly mastered the art of connecting with listeners to ensure commercial success.
All of which adds credence to my theory that line staff are just as likely (if not more likely) to make sensible decisions than management. I can now picture my father reading this and ringing me up to suggest that I end the essay with one of his favorite quotes: “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.” As he has consistently rejected all things Britpop over the years, I refuse to give him such satisfaction.
Shit. I just did.
In the Britpop series I celebrated Pulp’s Different Class as the greatest of all Britpop creations, then turned around and trashed the shit out of This Is Hardcore, giving it the ignominious distinction of “the album that destroyed Britpop.”
I’m such a treacherous bitch.
Still, I didn’t want to leave readers with the impression that I believed Jarvis Cocker had only that one shining moment before the sudden flip from no-name indie band leader to U. K. superstardom threw him off his game. Even the greats can have an off day, and I’m happy to report that Mr. Cocker recovered from the dual onslaught of too much coke and too much fame and returned to form on Pulp’s farewell album, We Love Life.
Pulp had already made one attempt to record the album, but creative differences and interpersonal noise resulted in a less-than-satisfying result. Island then brought in Scott Walker, whose deep musical knowledge, decades of recording experience on both sides of the glass and broadly idiosyncratic musical tastes made him the perfect choice to produce an album for an idiosyncratic band determined to blur the lines between pop and art. Walker had good material to work with—the collaboratively-written music was fundamentally solid and Cocker’s lyrics demonstrated his typically sharp insight into socio-cultural and sexual-relational dynamics—but the band needed discipline, focus and fresh ideas to make the music come alive. With assistance from longtime production partner Peter Walsh, Walker met all those needs, resulting in a deeply engaging album that gets better with every spin.
The muscular introduction to “Weeds” communicates confidence and intent, telling the listener that Pulp is back with a vengeance. Acoustic and electric guitar form a compelling drone pattern intensified by the introduction of thick bass and expansive drums, establishing a memorable motif in twelve seconds flat. The brevity of the introduction is designed to highlight the importance and urgency of the opening verse, where Jarvis Cocker concisely and powerfully exposes the danger of xenophobic tendencies that would come to the fore fifteen years later in the form of Brexit:
We came across the North Sea with our carriers on our knees
Wound up in some holding camp somewhere outside Leeds
Because we do not care to fight, my friends – we are the weeds
Because we got no homes they call us smelly refugees
“Because we got no homes they call us smelly refugees” is beautifully concrete language describing the stunning lack of empathy for people who lost their homes and livelihoods through no fault of their own, an emptiness now openly encouraged by politicians spouting nationalist, racist nonsense. The feeling expressed here is one of repulsion, but Cocker understood that expressions of repulsion are often a way for people to disguise an underlying attraction to the people or activity being demonized. Once the immigrant weeds get past the paperwork, they wind up in “communities” where they learn to survive by exploiting the “moral weaknesses” of the consumer majority overwhelmingly tempted by the sinful delights of sex, booze and drugs :
This cut-price dairy produce that turns our bones to dust
You want some entertainment?
Go on, shove it up me – if you must
Make believe you’re so turned on by planting trees & shrubs
But you come round to visit us when you fancy booze ‘n’ drugs
We are weeds, vegetation, dense undergrowth
Thru’ cracks in the pavement: there weeds will grow – the places you don’t go.
The transition from verse/chorus to the extended fade is very well-executed, with the underlying drone and rhythm powering forward movement and the background vocals provided by The Swingle Singers ensuring contrast and continuity. The closing message from the weeds—“We’d like to get you out of your mind/For a little time: for all time”—tells us that the weeds can tolerate members of the ruling class when they drop pretense and (to borrow a phrase from a song that appears later on the album) “admit that you’re a fuck-up like the rest of us.” Cocker delivers the pleas for “a little time, for all time” in a voice that gradually loses steam, capturing the exhaustion of people victimized by pretense and oppression. Hey! We’re all human here! Who died and made you King of the Earth? Why the fuck do we have to play these absurd and draining games with each other?
We leave those questions unanswered for now, hoping for more illumination in “Weeds II (The Origin of the Species),” which grows organically from the opening song’s fade. Here the tempo is taken down a couple of notches while a simple background of bass, drums, wah-wah guitar and synthesized ambiance form a backdrop for a Jarvis Cocker narrative, “a story of cultivation, exploitation, civilization.” While he claims “this is the true story of the weeds,” the narrative content adopts the perspective of the ruling class, who have always had a vested interest in defining “the truth.”
A charming naïveté, a very short flowering season;
No sooner has the first blooming begun than decay sets in.
Bring your camera, take photos of live on the margins.
Offer money in exchange for sex and then get a taxi home . . .
Growing wild, then harvested in their prime and passed around at dinner parties.
Care for some weed?
So natural, so wild, so unrefined and someone’s going to make a fortune one day
If ony they can market this stuff right>
Come on: do your dance.
Come on: do your funny little dance.
Germination. Plantation. Exploitation. Civilization.
The exploitation of the lower classes is essential to the ruling class definition of “civilization.” Recent headlines about human trafficking, modern-day slavery and the sexual exploitation of minors isn’t news, folks—this shit has been going on for years, shielded from discovery by a tight network of wealthy people who have the juice to protect other wealthy people and the financial resources to ensure that paid underlings keep things under wraps. While Cocker’s concept of social hierarchy bears some resemblance to the pigs-dogs-sheep structure of Roger Waters, he imbues the sheep (the weeds) with greater awareness of the exploitation and the wherewithal to do something about it—as he did is “Mis-Shapes” (“We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of and that’s our minds”) and “Common People” (“Like a dog lying in the corner/They will bite you and never warn you”). Roger Waters thinks we’re doomed; Cocker thinks we have a shot if we can ever get our shit together and unite in common cause.
The most disturbing song on the album is “The Night That Minnie Timperley Died,” a story about the rape and murder of an innocent teenage girl whose naïve worldview is captured in the opening lines:
“There’s a light that shines on everything & everyone.
And it shines so bright – brighter even than the sun”.
That’s what Minnie thinks as she walks to meet her brother,
Who is nearly two years older, on a Saturday night.
The brother is not the culprit; that dishonor belongs to “an older guy . . . paunchy, but dangerous” who offers Minnie a ride to the dance where her brother is DJ-ing. The murder is thankfully not described in gory detail, but as the brother laments the loss of his dear sister, he tries to get his head around the tragedy by adding, “And he only did what he did ’cause you looked like one of his kids.” That is one sick fuck, and while I’m a staunch defender of the right of the artist to choose his subject matter, I really wish Cocker hadn’t gone there. Musically, the song isn’t half-bad, displaying a different form of muscularity in the duet of distorted and acoustic guitar backed by amped-up bass from Steve Mackey . . . but yeah, I wish Cocker hadn’t gone there. I’m tired of toxic male entitlement stories.
“Trees” was part of a double A-side single with “Sunrise” (I would have preferred it paired with “Weeds”), the orchestral ostinato lifted from (er, sampled from) a piece called “Tell Her You Love Her” that was part of a soundtrack for the 60’s film Otley, described by the late Gene Siskel as “so boring it could put Sominex out of business.” The similarities end right there: through the fascinating process of creative transformation, Jarvis Cocker turned that long-forgotten ostinato into the unifying theme of one helluva song.
“Trees” introduces the second major theme of We Love Life: failed relationships. The milieu for this particular failure is a damp forest in autumn, the beauty of the leaves forming a deeply ironic contrast to the underlying processes of death and decay. After triggering his masculine hormones through the murder of a magpie, the narrator decides to put it to his female companion right there in the forest,
I took an air-rifle, shot a magpie to the ground
And it died without a sound.
Your skin so pale against the fallen autumn leaves
And no one saw us but the trees.
I can’t help but comment that if this guy even suggested that I lay down in a pile of moldy, rotten leaves so he could relieve the tension in his johnson, I would have picked up that air rifle and rendered his member as dead as that magpie. The layered images of death (her pale skin, the autumn leaves) portend the inevitable death of the relationship, for while the girl apparently submitted to the man’s wishes, the experience must have been less-than-satisfying:
Yeah, the trees, those useless trees produce the air that I am breathing.
Yeah, the trees, those useless trees; they never said that you were leaving.
Unable to face his own inadequacies, the man oddly shifts blame from the broad to the trees, calling them out for their failure to grow in straight lines, robbing him of his fantasy of relational permanence:
I carved your name with a heart just up above
Now swollen, distorted, unrecognisable; like our love.
The smell of leaf mould & the sweetness of decay
Are the incense at the funeral procession here today.
Though at this point, the guy seems like a total loser, Cocker inspires us to feel some sympathy for his wretched state through a change in vocal tone on the bridge that expresses naïve innocence as opposed to stubborn ignorance:
You try to shape the world to what you want the world to be.
Carving your name a thousand times won’t bring you back to me.
Oh no, no, I might as well go and tell it to the trees.
We’ve all been that poor dumb bastard, and if we’re lucky enough, we grow up and out of it.
“Trees” features exceptionally strong forward movement, much like “Weeds.” Mackey and drummer Nick Banks provide understated but effective rhythmic drive that melds well with the ostinato and the “tree noises” developed by Scott Walker. I have to add that the arrangements on We Love Life are excellent throughout, and it feels like the band has more presence than usual—and Pulp was a very good band.
Our second sampled-from-a-movie piece comes in the form of “Wickerman,” allegedly borrowed from the now obscure “Willow’s Song” from the now obscure British horror film The Wicker Man. Unlike the sampling that resulted in “Trees,” the similarities are harder to identify, but I have to confess I broke off my study of the piece because I couldn’t stand another second of Britt Ekland’s airy-fairy vocal.
I’ll never understand the 60’s fetish with doe-eyed girls.
“Wickerman” is the longest track on the album, a narrative poem in three parts set to three slightly different musical themes played in a sub-normal tempo. The song is a combination of reminiscence and fantasy, set in Cocker’s old stomping grounds of Sheffield. Given that the place names (the street nicknamed The Wicker; The Leadmill, a club where Pulp performed in the 80’s; the Broom Hall historic house) will likely have little meaning to listeners outside of South Yorkshire, “Wickerman” appears to demand a great deal from the listener, but the poetry makes it worth the trip. A little preparation and background information might help fill in some of the gaps:
- First, find Pulp: A Film About Life Death and Supermarkets on your favorite streaming site. It’s a documentary about Pulp’s final concert in Sheffield at the end of their 2012 reunion tour that also features views of the cityscape as well as interviews with band members and some of the curiously delightful inhabitants of Sheffield.
- The dominant motif of the song is the river, which presents something of a puzzle because Sheffield has five rivers (or one river and four tributaries, according to some geographers) and Cocker doesn’t tell us which river he’s talking about. He does give us a clue in the line “Yeah, a river flows underneath this city,” which, combined with a bit of online geographical sleuthing, leads me to conclude that the river in question is the Sheaf, the river that gave Sheffield its name. The Sheaf was indeed routed underground in the late 19th century, and a BBC article on Sheffield’s hidden rivers mentioned that “The culverts carrying the Sheaf and Porter Brook through the city are usually only accessed by urban explorers in illicit trips.” That is so Jarvis Cocker.
The poetry integrates the flow of a relationship with the flow of the river, the transitory with the seemingly permanent. After an evening at the Leadmill, Jarvis escorts his girl to a place behind the station where the “river runs through a concrete channel,” the water tainted by centuries of industrialization. As they move on, the river flows through “dirty brickwork conduits” beneath an old confectionery factory “leaving an antiquated sweet-shop smell & caverns of nougat & caramel,” continuing on “beneath pudgy fifteen-year olds addicted to coffee whitener, courting couples naked on old upholstery,” past the place where they first met, where Jarvis discovers that the “child’s toy horse ride that played such a ridiculously tragic tune” continues to operate, “but none of the kids seemed interested in riding on it.” They stop at a cafe, where Jarvis has a transformative experience:
And the cafe was still there too
The same press-in plastic letters on the price list & scuffed formica-top tables.
I sat as close as possible to the seat where I’d met you that autumn afternoon.
And then, after what seemed like hours of thinking about it
I finally took your face in my hands and I kissed you for the first time
And a feeling like electricity flowed through my whole body.
And I immediately knew that I’d entered a completely different world.
And all the time, in the background, the sound of that ridiculously heartbreaking child’s ride outside.
The river eventually reaches the other end of town “underneath an old railway viaduct.” The transitory nature of relationships is punctuated by the line, “I went there with you once – except you were somebody else.” That line would leave one to believe that the female lead is not a specific girl but an amalgamation of amorous experiences, or perhaps a muse of sorts. Jarvis then waxes lyrical about the possibilities that lie beyond their furthest point of exploration, then takes a sudden turn from the fantastic into something more concrete: his own experience of life in Sheffield:
I used to live just by the river, in a dis-used factory just off the Wicker
The river flowed by day after day
“One day” I thought, “One day I will follow it” but that day never came
I moved away and lost track but tonight I am thinking about making my way back.
I may find you there & float on wherever the river may take me.
The ambivalence and ambiguity of the story beautifully captures the tug-of-war that often characterizes our feelings about the place we call home. There is always the drive to want something different, something better, something exciting, but the pull of vivid memories, familiar sights and scents and experiences that shaped our lives form a powerful counterreaction. Perhaps the title indicates that no matter where his artistic journey takes him, Cocker acknowledges that he will always be a Wickerman at heart.
Speaking of ambivalence, the opening lines of “I Love Life” offer a more noncommital view of life’s wonders than those expressed by the tragically optimistic Minnie Timperley:
Here comes your bedtime story:
Mum & Dad have sentenced you to life.
Jarvis sings those lines in the gentle, reassuring voice of a parent attempting to lull a child to sleep, while Mark Webber’s descending counterpoint riffs support the tone of reassurance—a tone that shifts to slight mockery as Jarvis explains what it takes to stay alive:
Don’t think twice; it’s the only reason I’m alive.
I feel alright as long as I don’t forget to breathe.
Breathe in, breathe in, breathe out.
Jarvis explained this unusual level of attention to an autonomous process thusly: “The idea of that song is someone trying to regain control of their life, and it’s not all that easy sometimes.” As the narrator later describes the flow of life as “Another day, another major disaster,” the reminder to breathe and the repetition of “I love my life, I love my life” sound more like those useless self-help affirmations than a sincere embrace. The flip from soft music to heavy, rough and dark in the fade (cued by a marvelously understated Webber-crafted transition) gives Jarvis permission to act like a man unhinged, desperate to make sense of it all. In the end, we never know if the guy loves life, wants to love life or wants others to believe that he loves life to avoid unpleasantness . . . and that ambivalence is the point of the song.
“Birds in Your Garden” is a ridiculously delightful tune about “a love affair that I had in a period when I wasn’t really all that together. I thought that I’d fucked the relationship up because I was fucked up. It was the start of me feeling I had to get a bit more natural.” While Cocker may have been referring to one specific relational failure, awkwardness seemed to be his calling card in his formative years. In Pulp: A Film About Life Death and Supermarkets, he talks about the period in his teens when he worked at the local market hawking fish and how after work he would soak his hands in bleach for ten minutes trying to get rid of the smell before bungling his way through the jungle (it didn’t work). Introverts often need a crutch to take things to the next level, and in this piece, Jarvis imagines the birds of birds-and-bees fame offering their unlimited support:
“Take her now. Don’t be scared, it’s alright.
Oh, come on, touch her inside.
It’s a crime against nature – she’s been waiting all night.
Come on, hold her, and kiss her and tell her you care
If you wait ’til tomorrow she’ll no longer be there.
Come on & give it to her. You know it’s now or never.”
Yeah, the birds in your garden have all started singing this
Set to equally corny, dramatic-romantic music in the style of the early Walker Brothers, “Birds in Your Garden” falls somewhere between camp and tragi-comic, a weirdly charming experience.
“Bob Lind” has nothing to do with the 60’s folksinger whose “Elusive Butterfly” is one of my least favorite songs of all time. Jarvis rather liked the piece, and named the song after Lind because “something about the song made me think of him.” You won’t find similarities in either the musical structure or the lyrics, but the song does feature the density of “Elusive Butterfly”, with oodles of words pushing up against the boundaries and the music rambling along on the busy side with classic 60’s plucked arpeggios. Essentially, the song is the doppelgänger of “Birds in Your Garden” where Cocker engages in self-immolation about what a fuck-up he is when it comes to the dance that hopefully results in getting laid:
The recreational pursuits that made you shine have worn you thin.
And it’s oh so fine getting out of your mind as long as you can find your way back in.
You want someone to screw your brains out
I’d say they’re running out of time and they’d only go and cut themselves on the daggers of your mind.
This is your future.
This is the sentence you must serve ’til you admit that you’re a fuck-up like the rest of us.
Interesting that part of the reason he’s a fuck-up had to do with his embrace of drug culture, where getting as fucked-up or even more fucked-up in comparison to one’s peers establishes your cred. Those “recreational pursuits” do indeed wear thin, both in terms of that totally unsexy emaciation and the shallowness that comes from a half-dead brain. I only wish he’d learned this lesson before recording This Is Hardcore.
“Bad Cover Version” was the lead single, and deservedly so. Candida Doyle’s fluid melody is delivered in the style of the dramatic renderings of the “brother groups” (Righteous and Walker), complete with soulfully angelic female backing singers, integrating the concept of a bad cover version into the music itself. While the song is remembered largely for the list of bad cover versions in the fade, the brilliance of the song is found long before that litany of substandard sequels. In the very first verse, Jarvis a.) exchanges his wimpy relational persona for a guy with some balls and b.) subtly echoing his legitimate claim to share initials with Jesus Christ in “Dishes” from This Is Hardcore, he dismisses the savior as someone not up to par in comparison to what he has to offer:
The word’s on the street; you’ve found someone new
If he looks nothing like me
I’m so happy for you
I heard an old girlfriend
Has turned to the church
She’s trying to replace me
But it’ll never work
“A bad cover version of love is not the real thing” he opines, likening the rebound experience to the “bikini-clad girl on the front who invited you in.” Perhaps it’s our fetish with familiarity that drives us to seek bad cover versions, and the film industry has capitalized on that weakness to produce dozens of dreadful remakes and sequels that rarely come close to the real thing. Whatever the drive, the bad cover version is an inspired metaphor beautifully suited to the experience of modern relationships.
When we get to the fade, Jarvis makes sure we get the point by listing a series of “sad imitations that got it so wrong.” The talking version of Tom and Jerry. The Stones since the eighties (my favorite). The last days of South Fork. The television version of The Planet of the Apes. Generic cornflakes. The most awkward reference is to one of Scott Walker’s least successful efforts:
. . . in the end section of the song there’s a list of inferior things, but unfortunately in this litany I included Scott Walker’s fifth solo LP, ‘Til the Band Comes In. Because that record’s always mystified me, because it starts off with original material, and it’s pretty good, and then suddenly on the second side he just does six cover versions, and it’s like he just kind of gets sick of the whole thing and just gives up halfway through the record. So I’ve always found it a very strange album for that.
I wish he’d added “90% of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles career” and the Clash album Cut the Crap, but I think Jarvis won the day. Inadvertently, he also created a great drinking game! It starts when the first player selects a great contribution or contributor in any field (arts, science, music, politics, whatever). The rest of the players compete with each other to come up with the perfect bad cover version, then the whole team votes on whose response was the most painfully perfect match. The winner downs a shot of whatever you have handy! I played it with the extended family during my recent escape to Ireland, and we had a great time. I haven’t been that drunk since I was seventeen!
p. s. The video, filled with celebrity look-alikes, is an absolute hoot.
Though the theme of relational issues continues in “Roadkill,” the mood turns melancholy with an extended introduction featuring two acoustic guitars playing slow arpeggios in separate channels over distant background music supplied by Philip Sheppard on five-string cello with occasional shimmery cymbal highlights and ambient fills. Jarvis approaches the vocal as if he’s talking to himself as he calls up images of his ex, “the things I don’t see anymore.” The mood is disturbed at the start of the third verse when Jarvis encounters a traffic jam caused by a dead deer in the road and the volume rises to reflect the irritating stress that accompanies such a moment. Once the road is clear, the music returns to the painful stillness that accentuates the sense of loss and the utter helplessness that accompanies the death of a cherished relationship. “Roadkill” may not be on anyone’s list of favorite Pulp songs, but its design and delivery are exceptional.
Counterintuitively, We Love Life ends with a song called “Sunrise.” I don’t think much of the song itself, as I think the theme of wasting the night away to greet the dawn had already been captured to perfection in “Bar Italia,” but I will give Jarvis due credit for the opening couplet:
I used to hate the sun because it shone on everything I’d done.
Made me feel that all that I had done was overfill the ashtray of my life.
The core song is actually quite brief—two verses sung to an uninspired melody—and most of the five minutes and fifty-seven seconds is filled with an extended uptempo passage featuring ripping guitar and “choir engineering.” There could have only been one purpose for such an appendage—to make sure Pulp could generate some crowd excitement during live performances and transform that energy into an encore. It’s sort of a “meh” album closer, and I wish they’d found a way to close with a reprise of “Weeds,” as the socio-cultural theme virtually disappears a quarter of the way through the album. Placing the relational issues in the larger context would have strengthened both themes.
Nonetheless, We Love Life itself was a strong closer for Pulp, a clear reminder of just how special they were. One of the most interesting interviews in Pulp: A Film About Life Death and Supermarkets featured a Sheffield resident who talked about Blur and Pulp and said she preferred the latter. When asked why, she said, “More melodic . . . and better words, actually . . . it makes you think . . . and I like music that makes you think.”
Pulp reaffirmed the notion that pop music can in fact rise to the level of art, and in a world dominated by auto-tuned, formulaic crapola with lyrics that rarely rise above the infantile, at a time when we desperately need intelligent, melodic music to help us make sense of a world that appears to be crumbling before our eyes, music that inspires you to sing along and makes you think at the same time would be a welcome change of pace.
Everyone should miss Pulp.