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.
“There must be classes—there must be rich and poor,” Dives says, smacking his claret (it is well if he even sends the broken meat out to Lazarus sitting under the window). Very true; but think how mysterious and often unaccountable it is—that lottery of life which gives to this man the purple and fine linen and sends to the other rags for garments and dogs for comforters.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair
I’m convinced we all are voyeurs. It’s part of the detective thing. We want to know secrets and we want to know what goes on behind those windows . . . There’s an entertainment value to it, but at the same time we want to know: What do humans do? Do they do the same things as I do? It’s a gaining of some sort of knowledge, I think.
If you would have set odds at the beginning of the Britpop phenomenon as to which band would be most likely to produce the crown jewel of the era, the odds on Pulp would have been 1000-1 or worse. Pulp had existed on the fringes of listener consciousness for over a decade as an indie group, struggling though all the associated challenges of independence that have buried many a promising new band. The most accurate adjective you can apply to their pre-fame style is “eclectic,” a curious mix of electronic new wave, experimental, post-disco, post-punk, folk, romance, house, acid, glam and a touch of Serge Gainsbourg. While they did get some buzz in the music mags for a couple of early singles, it would have been a huge leap of faith to predict anything close to stardom in 1993.
Their fortunes changed when Island rescued them from indie oblivion and gave them big label support. The result was the album His ‘n’ Hers, which blasted into the Top 10 the following year and earned a Mercury Prize nomination. What I find most interesting about this transition is that after castrating Robert Palmer and turning him into a cheesy lounge singer, Island pretty much let Pulp be Pulp. By this time, all those diverse influences had converged to create a unique sound and presentation that managed to catch the public fancy.
His ‘n’ Hers certainly contained more pop-friendly tunes than their earlier efforts, and is a pretty solid album overall. It does suffer from inconsistent production; on some songs the space allotted to the band squeezes Jarvis Cocker’s vocals into a very narrow range in the sound field, making it difficult to hear the lyrics clearly. It is impossible to appreciate Pulp without paying close attention to Jarvis Cocker’s every word and vocalization, so this flaw served to dampen the listening experience. Then again, it’s equally apparent that at this stage, Jarvis was still sharpening his acting skills and phrasing, leading to a few moments of scenery-chewing and vocal inflections that didn’t quite work in the context of song and lyrics. Live versions of the hits from His ‘n’ Hers performed after the release of Different Class resolved both problems, providing supporting evidence that during the recording of Different Class, Jarvis Cocker was in complete command of his voice while displaying extraordinary sensitivity to narrative and subtext.
If Different Class had been a full-length film, Jarvis Cocker would have won Best Actor at the 68th Academy Awards and the Academy could have avoided the everlasting embarrassment of handing the statue to Nicolas Cage.
Even the best actors can’t do much with a bad script, but Cocker took care of that aspect of the work by penning some of the finest lyrics ever written for popular music. The lyrics for a Different Class are exceptionally vivid, filled with memorable, meaningful lines expressing a wide range of attitudes, emotions and psychological states. Often salted with wit, occasionally marked by justifiable outrage and sometimes outrageous in and of themselves, the imagery often gives the listener a you-are-there feeling that is intensely captivating. I would love to be able to tell my readers how Jarvis Cocker spent years agonizing over the lyrics, risking his eyesight as he scribbled away in a garret to the dying light of a candle stub, spending many a sleepless night searching assiduously for le mot juste in every turn of a phrase. Sadly for the romantics and English majors in the audience, Mr. Cocker opted for a different approach:
We went into Axis recording studios and recorded 12 songs. Next problem—I hadn’t written any words for them. The only solution was to sit in my sister’s kitchen with a bottle of cheap Spanish brandy and write until I lost consciousness—in the morning I had completed 10 and I finished the other 2 on the way to the studio (I have tried this method of working since with no result other than a hangover).
—Liner notes, 2006 Deluxe Edition
Well, fuck it. That works, too.
The tight timeline did come with certain advantages. It forced Jarvis Cocker to write about what he knew best—his life experience, from his youth in Sheffield to the dawn of pop stardom. The deadline also helped rein in the censor that exists in everyone’s brain, the nagging parent that warns you “don’t say this” or “don’t do this” and “don’t even think about this!” This allowed him to explore taboo topics and speak to those unspeakable urges that all of us have but share only with therapists and (maybe) life partners. Along the way, he cuts through the bullshit and says what he really means instead of giving us polite approximations, achieving that state that all poets yearn for but rarely achieve—the moment when the listener (or reader) realizes that what has been expressed is what the listener has felt all along but could never find the right words to express the thought or feeling. Some of the narratives in Different Class may seem bizarre and exotic at first listen, but that’s only because our own censors are in constant operation. Once we tell mom or dad to get the fuck out of our heads, we realize that the stories told in Different Class encompass a much broader range of the human experience than we’re accustomed to hearing in pop—and once you get used to that, the listening experience becomes exceptionally rewarding and curiously validating.
That’s because none of us are truly normal and we’re all at least a little bit “different.”
While I’ve spent a lot of space talking about Jarvis Cocker’s contributions, it would be a serious mistake to ignore the band. Pulp was one of the tightest, most disciplined bands of the era, exceptionally proficient with arrangement and equally strong in managing the varying dynamics demanded by the lyrics. Music creation was a collaborative effort, and arrangements made the most of each member’s unique skill set. Pulp music largely eschews the grand solo and the virtuoso moment, so you may not immediately notice the high level of musicianship at work. In that sense, Pulp operated on the symphonic model, focusing on the wholeness of the composition and the blend of disparate voices. That approach is perfectly suited to support a vocal soloist who varies his attack from full-throated passion to evocative whispers.
The overriding theme of Different Class is captured in the motto on the back of the album (We don’t want no trouble, we just want the right to be different. That’s all.) and in the opening number, “Mis-Shapes.” The sigh-infused half-mumbled opening line (“Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits”) gives you no hint of the anthemic explosiveness that lies ahead, but it beautifully expresses the “Why do we have to deal with this silly shit?” question that comes up every time an oppressed group has to fight once again for rights and privileges that should be a given. Cocker then gives a tongue-in-cheek apology for the existence of these unpleasant outsiders, latching on to the faddish health studies of the day that attempted to pin the problems of the lower classes on poor childhood nutrition:
Raised on a diet of broken biscuits, oh
We don’t look the same as you
And we don’t do the things you do
But we live around here too, oh really
Broken biscuits are manufacturing deformities sold in British stores in the holy name of profit margins; here Cocker adopts the image as an icon for those who look and behave in ways that the perfectly-shaped (shaped by culture, that is) normals find inexplicable and unacceptable. The dangers of being different are described in the second verse, a sad retelling of what happens to gays, blacks, bohemians, the homeless, transgenders or any “different” person who happens to wind up on the wrong side of town:
Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits
We’d like to go to town but we can’t risk it, oh
‘Cause they just want to keep us out
You could end up with a smack in the mouth
Just for standing out, now, really
The dry-and-droll “oh really” in the first verse is a theatrical aside where Cocker slips into the role of normal resident who can’t accept that “those people” dare to exist in their exclusive environment; the “now, really” is a reinforcement of the “having to go over this again is fucking ridiculous” subtext. Up to this point, the band has been somewhat restrained, providing sharp rhythmic punctuation in the verses before returning to background. Now the band holds to that insistent punctuation as Cocker addresses the mis-shapes directly, assuring them that “the future’s owned by you and me.” Cued by an introductory drum roll, the band explodes in a shift to double-time as Cocker delivers a confident message of imminent revolution:
We’re making a move, we’re making it now
We’re coming out of the side-lines
Just put your hands up, it’s a raid yeah
We want your homes, we want your lives
We want the things you won’t allow us
We won’t use guns, we won’t use bombs
We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of, that’s our minds
I’ve thought of those lines as I try to play out how the Americans can get rid of the fascist-fundamentalist Trump criminal organization and . . . while I hope non-violence and intellectual superiority can triumph over the deplorables, those fanatics have lots of guns and believe that killing liberals is a god-sanctioned act . . . I just don’t know.
The differences in play in “Mis-Shapes” are partly generational, echoing the cries of the early British punks (“We learnt too much at school now we can’t help but see/That the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about”), but to interpret “Mis-Shapes” through such a narrow lens is a mistake. Human beings have an instinctual fear of anything different, and with increasing intercultural interaction, emerging sexual diversity and the burgeoning number of communities based on lifestyle choices, the message of “Mis-Shapes” is that the resolution lies in resorting to our intelligence rather than our instincts to guide us through. The dramatic impact of that message is enhanced by the use of half step rises on the fifth note of the root chord scale (three steps up in the G-major segment and two steps up in the E-minor segment), a simple technique that results in a series of terribly exciting builds.
“Pencil Skirt” seems to pick up on a monologue that’s already in progress with its clever fade-in. It seems Jarvis and his neighbor are engaged in (gasp) illicit sex!
Oh, well, I know that you’re engaged to him
Oh, but I know you want something to play with, baby
I’ll be around when he’s not in town, oh
Yeah, I’ll show you how you’re doing it wrong, oh
I really love it when you tell me to stop, oh
Oh, it’s turning me on
We can infer that she’s engaged to someone she’s “supposed to” marry, someone mum and dad think is a good match. Her body is telling her otherwise, and despite her weak protests, she engages in cuckoldry with explosive passion. As for his ambitions, we know he gets off at the naughtiness of it all, but we soon find out that he’s trying to secure the wench for himself (“But I’ve kissed your mother twice/And now I’m working on your dad”). As the story reaches the climax, his intentions become more ambiguous, leaving us wondering if the passion he feels now might disappear once the relationship is sanctioned:
I only come here cause I know it makes you sad
I only do it ‘cos I know you know it’s bad
Oh, don’t you know that it’s ugly and it shouldn’t be like that?
Oh but, oh, it’s turning me on
“Pencil Skirt” isn’t simply a story about two cheaters who delight in dirt, but a mini-story that paints a clear picture of a cultural norm of repression that forces people into sexual dark alleys instead of being open and honest about their desires and motivations. Earlier in the song, the narrator encourages the woman to “watch my conscience disappear,” and while he seems to recover that conscience in this final verse, he can’t deny that “Oh but, oh, it’s turning me on.” We leave the song quite unsure that any long-term relationship will have the same sense of thrill for either of them, which is just fucking sad. Cocker’s performance mingles sotto voce with occasional bursts of plain-speaking that perfectly fit the narrative while enriching the subtext, and as usual, the band is tight, unintrusive and there at all the right moments.
Incredible as it may seem, “Common People” almost died at birth. When Jarvis Cocker let the band hear the nifty little tune he’d come up with on his brand-new Casiotone 500, the reaction was less-than-enthusiastic . . . with one exception. “I just thought it was great straight away. It must have been the simplicity of it, and you could just tell it was a really powerful song then,” opined Candida Doyle.
Lesson #1: Always trust the keyboard player, said the pianist.
Lesson #2: Always trust the broad, said the broad.
In researching the song, I learned that most of the journalistic and critical efforts devoted to “Common People” have nothing to do with the memorable music or the powerful, searing lyrics, but with the search for the true identity of the oblivious Greek chick who serves as the foil. Oh, for fuck’s sake, people! By the mid-90’s the rising income inequality initiated by the Reagan–Thatcher regimes had already resulted in a virtual population explosion of common people who were ruthlessly kicked out of the middle class and ALL YOU CARE ABOUT IS SOME EMPTY-HEADED ENTITLED BROAD?
The second-most common reference defines the subject matter of the song as “slumming.” That’s like saying that “Mis-Shapes” is about broken biscuits. I would quote from the lyrics to that song if I had the opportunity to speak to those scions of superficiality and tell them “You’re so bleeding thick!” Jarvis Cocker used slumming as a departure point, an example of behavior and mindset that indicates the existence of a far more dangerous threat to society. “Common People” is about how we have abandoned empathy for entrepreneurship and compassion for selfishness, condemning millions to lives devoid of “meaning and control.”
When he encounters the empty space of the Ivanka-like persona—a scene set to a light, cheerful music background—Jarvis responds in an offhand manner, playing along with joke:
She told me that her Dad was loaded,
I said “In that case I’ll have a rum and coca-cola.”
She said “Fine.”
And in thirty seconds time she said,
I want to live like common people,
I want to do whatever common people do,
I want to sleep with common people,
I want to sleep with common people,
Well what else could I do?
I said “I’ll see what I can do.”
He escorts his apprentice to a supermarket, where she finds his suggestion to “pretend you’ve got no money” laughably cute. The depth of her obliviousness finally hits him, a realization dramatized in the whispered line, “Are you sure?” That brilliant piece of voice acting always gives me the chills, and after he questions her again about her commitment to trading places, you can “hear” him throw his hands in the air in frustration as he raises his voice to deliver the lines, “But she just didn’t understand/She just smiled and held my hand.”
Jarvis has now had it with this silly bitch and responds to his shock at her insensitivity with an unflinching picture of reality, delivered in a voice marked by intense astonishment and righteous anger supported by disciplined, steady band power:
Rent a flat above a shop,
Cut your hair and get a job.
Smoke some fags and play some pool,
Pretend you never went to school.
But still you’ll never get it right,
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night,
Watching roaches climb the wall,
If you called your Dad he could stop it all.
You’ll never live like common people,
You’ll never do whatever common people do,
You’ll never fail like common people,
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view,
And dance and drink and screw,
Because there’s nothing else to do.
I can’t think of another passage in popular music that moves me as much as this one, and I always reach the point of tears when I hear the lines, “You’ll never fail like common people/You’ll never watch your life slide out of view.” A lower-class existence means you are forced into scripted lives with limited options, ignorant about how the game is played and lacking the financial resources to ante up, set up to fail through poor education and the absence of potentially useful connections. The lives of the lower classes represent one of the ugliest aspects of life under the kill-or-be-killed nature of untempered capitalism, but rather than face the problem, the rich and even large segments of the middle class blame the poor, because it’s their own damned fault, you know . . . those lazy bastards.
The intensely exciting instrumental passage with its breathtakingly emphatic one-chord coda (ba-ba-ba! ba-ba-ba! ba-ba-ba! ba-ba-ba! BA-BA-BA-BA/BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA!) stands by itself as a great musical moment, but I’m absolutely knocked out when they repeat the pattern towards the end of the second-go-round of the “Rent a flat above the shop” passage and Jarvis inserts a brief pause between “watching” and “roaches climb the wall.” While the whisper cited above gave me the chills, that glorious bit of phrasing sends those chills up and down my spine and back again. Prior to that amazing bit of collaborative creation, Jarvis gives us his final take on the lives of the common people, moving me to frustrated tears once again:
You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go.
You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright,
Whilst you can only wonder why.
If “Common People” fails to move you, I suggest you may want to read up on emotional intelligence or try to figure out what happened in your life to render you so callous to the problems faced by your fellow human beings (with or without the aid of a therapist). It’s not only a great song, but a vitally important song that is as relevant today as it was almost twenty-five years ago.
The only way to follow an epic song like “Common People” is to completely shift mood and perspective, and Pulp accomplishes this with the gypsy-esque, orchestra-enhanced revenge fantasy “I Spy.” Cocker told Melody Maker that he wrote the song about his experience living on the dole in Sheffield, describing it as “one of the most savage songs that I’ve ever written . . . it’s definitely the most vindictive.” I’ll say! As he wanders the streets of his hometown, feeling that “everyone thinks you’re just this useless, jobless piece of crap,” he fantasizes about revenge on all the self-satisfied bastards around him. Those fantasies are oddly empowering, compensating for the loss of self-worth engendered by the judgments of the smug. But while he seems inert to the lazy observer, he is a man with a plan: “It may look to the untrained eye/I’m sitting on my ass all day/I’m biding time until I take you all on.” At first his imagination merges with happier moments from the past (“The crowd gasp at Cocker’s masterful control of the bicycle/Skillfully avoiding the dog turd next to the corner shop”) and the first time he grabbed a tit (for which act he believes he deserves a plaque), but soon warns the listener that “You’ve got to wait for the best.” We don’t have to wait long—the music dims and Cocker shifts to a loaded whisper, barely able to contain his vengeful delight:
You see, you should take me seriously
Very seriously indeed.
Cause I’ve been sleeping with your wife for the past sixteen weeks
Smoking your cigarettes
Drinking your brandy
Messing up the bed that you chose together
And in all that time I just wanted you to come home unexpectedly one afternoon
And catch us at it in the front room
Forgive me for indulging in Schadenfreude, but that sequence finds me bursting into hysterical laughter. Jarvis offered the opinion that “it’s important to acknowledge that you’ve got these feelings inside you,” so I’ll defend myself by insisting that my reaction is legitimately therapeutic. In any case, “I Spy” is a remarkable piece of theatre, a penetrating look at human psychology and a courageous admission of the author’s very human flaws. And though it seems a significant departure from “Common People” in terms of mood and music, “I Spy” actually enriches the class narrative by shining a light on the deep bitterness of the working classes engendered by circumstances that forever seem out of one’s control.
Now we need a pick-me-up, and we get a much-needed boost with the distorted rock guitar, pounding drums and disco-tinged synth of “Disco 2000.” Cocker’s delivery of the opening verse reinforces the notion that the man had his acting skills down pat:
Oh we were born within one hour of each other
Our mothers said we could be sister and brother
Your name is Deborah, Deborah
The second “Deborah” is half-whispered, as if he’s deifying the name of a fondly remembered squeeze of yesteryear.
It never suited ya
The rest of the song is a delightfully uncensored recollection of memories and regrets. The mothers in question dreamt of the day when the two would “marry and never split up.” Cocker’s rejoinder is “Oh, we never did it, although I often thought of it,” and his clipping of the words “did it” indicates he wasn’t thinking about exchanging vows. Sadly, he winds up on the losing end of the competition, resigned to a youth drenched in cold showers:
You were the first girl at school to get breasts
And Martyn said that you were the best
Oh the boys all loved you, but I was a mess
I had to watch them trying to get you undressed
We were friends, that was as far as it went
I used to walk you home sometimes but it meant
Oh, it meant nothing to you
‘Cause you were so popular
Reinforcing the fascination-with-the-millenium theme of Britpop, he suggests they meet up in the year 2000 by the fountain in Sheffield, the classic hometown meeting place. The proposed meet-up serves the purpose of resolving one of the dozens of loose ends created in the confusing world of the teenager, and while it may seem as unpleasantly nostalgic as a high school reunion, in this case I think it’s a valid desire for closure and shared understanding . . . life as a teenager is full of unresolved questions with answers found only when you’re mature enough to hear them.
Human artifacts tell stories about their owners, and there is hardly a piece of furniture in anyone’s house that contains more stories than the bed. It’s my favorite place in the whole world! I like to spend at least half of every day there! And yes, I change the sheets frequently! I may be a pervert, but I’m a very clean pervert!
As far as beds go, I’m a very lucky girl, but the lady in “Live Bed Show” is not.
She doesn’t have to go to work
But she doesn’t want to stay in bed
‘Cause it’s changed from something comfortable
To something else instead
The story is built around that verse, which appears at the beginning and at the close. We learn that at one time you could hear “the headboard banging in the night,” but “something beautiful left town/and she doesn’t even know its name.” While this could be a commentary on the fading beauty of womankind, Jarvis Cocker has always shown an empathetic affinity for women (more about that later), so I think that a loveless marriage is the culprit (backed up by the fact she doesn’t have to work). The music is slightly melodramatic, rather like a slower version of Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” but the narrative is sparse, lean and free of over-dramatization. It’s just a sad song about another sad life in Jolly Olde England.
We shift from sad to sweet with “Something Changed,” a story about how kismet or a roll of the dice plays a major role in lovers coming together. While I personally don’t believe that “there’s someone up above” with “a timetable directing acts of love,” I do believe that something must be behind the often strange set of choices each party makes that eventually lead to them coming together in a way that feels like magic. The song opens with big, crisp acoustic guitar, eventually supported by romantically-geared strings providing melodic counterpoint. This is as close that Pulp gets to sounding like a classic guitar-drums-bass band on Different Class, and they’re pretty damned good at it! Jarvis Cocker came out as a devotee of random chance, saying “Something Changed” is “not really about fate, it’s more about the randomness of things . . . The worst thing about having a schedule and a timetable is that there’s less chance for unexpected things to happen.” I agree, and I love how this lightly reflective moment adds to the thematic diversity of the album.
We head out to the Santa Pod Raceway in Podington, Bedfordshire, England to hang with twenty thousand people high on E’s (ecstasy) or Wizz (speed), all nicely sorted out into separate cliques. I never bothered with raves during my wayward youth, though I thought ravers were rather nice, harmless people somewhat intimidated by the real world surrounding them. Cocker’s reminiscences capture the Woodstock-like belief that because all of us young folks came together “this has just got to mean something-ing.” Since Cocker notes that “no-one seems to know exactly where it is,” I suppose there is something miraculous about them coming together, given how fucked-up they were. The dominant melody is light and dreamy, reflecting the spaciness of the participants, shifting to something a bit darker when reality enters the picture:
Oh, in the middle of the night
It feels alright, but then tomorrow morning
Then you come down
The initial excitement fades long before the crash, however, as all those apparently nice people prove become quite unfriendly when a chap asks them for a lift:
Everybody asks your name, they say we’re all the same and now it’s “Nice one, ” “geezer”
But that’s as far as the conversation went
I lost my friends, I dance alone
It’s six o’clock, I want to go home
But it’s “no way, ” “not today”
Makes you wonder what it meant
(shift to spoken word) And this hollow feeling grows and grows and grows and grows
And you want to call your mother
And say “Mother, I can never come home again
‘Cause I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere
Somewhere in a field in Hampshire.”
There was a silly controversy concerning the cover of the single version of “Sorted Out for E’s & Wizz” where the Daily Mirror “journalist” Kate Thornton accused Pulp facilitating and encouraging drug use. Harrumph! If the anti-drug fanatics would exert one-tenth of the energy they waste with their knee-jerk paranoid reactions towards addressing the problem of the existential pain of modern life (caused by meaningless jobs, limited options and the obsession with conformity)—you know, the problem that leads people to use drugs in the first place—the world would be a happier, more rational place. People use drugs to escape from reality because reality often sucks. Why not try to make it better? Jarvis Cocker’s message was much stronger and more to the point, and it’s too bad he forgot about it when he developed a passion for cocaine in the years that followed.
“F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.” has earned Jarvis Cocker deserved enmity from music critics everywhere who have to break their stride to T.Y.P.E.O.U.T.T.H.E.I.N.I.T.I.A.L.S.O.F.T.H.E.F.U.C.K.I.N.G.T.I.T.L.E. Once I get the peevishness out of my system, I find myself treated to an opening passage with tremendous sex appeal, with Nick Banks offering a sweet syncopated beat enhanced with electronics, Steve Mackey providing a nice rhythmic counterpoint, Candida Doyle adorning the spaces and Russell Senior demonstrating remarkable bow command with dissonant, edgy fills. The effect is dark, eerie and dangerously erotic. Jarvis enters in spoken word mode, negating the erotic flavor through his tale of forced isolation in an icy room. The furniture is desperate need of repair, as is the room’s inhabitant:
The room is cold
And has been like this for several months
If I close my eyes, I can visualise everything in it
Right down to the broken handle
On the third drawer down of the dressing table
And the world outside this room
Has also assumed a familiar shape
The same events shuffled
In a slightly different order each day
Just like a modern shopping centre
And it’s so cold
Yeah, it’s so cold
Suddenly, in a move I’ll describe as Pixies squared, we get LOUD and the reason for the man’s paralysis. He’s in love! The fucking idiot is in love and can’t handle it!
What is this feeling called love?
Why me, why you?
Why here, why now?
It doesn’t make no sense, no
It’s not convenient, no
It doesn’t fit my plans, no
It’s something I don’t understand, oh
L-O-V-E, what is this thing that is happening to me?
So what do I do?
Well, sonny, you’re equipped with a protruding member that can produce serious discomfort when unused, so why the fuck don’t you use it? Ah! I see—another case of the weight of cultural expectations concerning romantic behavior crushing your libido and leaving you with erectile dysfunction! Sigh. Poor bastard.
I’ve got a slightly sick feeling in my stomach
Like I’m standing on top of a very high building, oh, yeah
All the stuff they tell you about in the movies
But this isn’t chocolate boxes and roses
It’s dirtier than that
Like some small animal that only comes out at night
And I see flashes of the shape of your breasts
And the curve of your belly
And they make me have to sit down and catch my breath
And it’s so cold
And it’s so cold
Hey! I heard that lecherous tone on “it’s dirtier than that,” sonny. Go with that! Explode!
We’re not sure if the narrator gets his rocks off, but the band certainly explodes with an extended, thumping rendition of the LOUD. Perfectly designed for live performance, “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.” is an exciting experience in the erotic Twilight Zone where too many people remain in culturally-induced paralysis.
Sexual tension of a different sort awaits us in the marvelous dramatic monologue “Underwear.” Jarvis slips into the role of a woman with surprising ease, a feature of his personality likely developed through his largely fatherless youth. The classic and trite expectation about boys who grow up without fathers is that they become “mama’s boys,” but my experience says otherwise—my interest level in a man goes way up if I learn that he was raised primarily by his mother, because mama is likely to have taught him the missing skill he probably would never have learned from a man: emotional intelligence. It’s an extra bit of insurance that tells me I’m not going to get stuck with a macho jerk driven by he-man fantasies.
The basic problem facing the young woman is that she has set the wheels in motion to have sex with a relatively recent acquaintance:
Why don’t you shut the door
And close the curtains?
‘Cause you’re not going anywhere
He’s coming up the stairs
And in a moment he’ll want to see your underwear
Aside: Jarvis Cocker wrote some of the most brilliant opening verses in history.
She explains her dilemma in the chorus, where Jarvis delivers a beautiful, passionate and agonized vocal, mirroring the emotional stew inside:
I couldn’t stop it now
There’s no way to get out
He’s standing far too near
And how the hell did you get in here
Semi-naked in somebody else’s room?
I’d give my whole life to see it
Only in your underwear
Many readers will listen to those words and think, “What the fuck! Why can’t she stop it? Tell the guy she changed her mind and move on!” It may be true that you have to be a woman to understand this, but sometimes we find ourselves in a pickle where we’ve essentially enticed the guy into the promise of poontang and it . . . it feels awkward and somewhat rude to back out and leave him with purple balls. Call it “misplaced empathy,” but the phenomenon is quite common . . . and I have supporting evidence to back that claim!
The last contact I had with American TV was the Stormy Daniels interview on 60 Minutes. Naturally, the only thing interviewer Anderson Cooper was interested in was why in the hell she fucked Donald Trump, and her experience was exactly the experience described in “Underwear.”
Stormy: I asked him if I could use his restroom and he said, “Yes, you know, it’s through those– through the bedroom, you’ll see it.” So I—I excused myself and I went to the—the restroom . . . You know, I was in there for a little bit and came out and he was sitting, you know, on the edge of the bed when I walked out . . . perched.
Anderson Cooper: And when you saw that, what went through your mind?
Stormy: I realized exactly what I’d gotten myself into. And I was like, “Ugh, here we go.” (laugh) And I just felt like maybe– (laugh) it was sort of– I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, “Well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.”
Anderson Cooper: And you had sex with him.
Anderson Cooper: You were 27, he was 60. Were you physically attracted to him?
Anderson Cooper: Not at all?
Anderson Cooper: Did you want to have sex with him?
Stormy: No. But I didn’t—I didn’t say no. I’m not a victim, I’m not—
Anderson Cooper: It was entirely consensual.
Stormy: Oh, yes, yes.
Early in my sexual development I found myself in this situation a few times, and reached out to my mother for advice (yes, we’re that close). After talking it through, I decided that the problem had to do with the indirect communication of traditional seduction, and that to avoid “pity fucks” I would have to learn how to clarify my feelings and express them directly and immediately to my prospective partner. “I have a sense that I might want to fuck you but I’m not sure. Let’s just hang out together and see if that feeling gets any clearer. How do you feel about it?” Usually, the answer to that question is stammering bullshit, which causes me to immediately lose interest, allowing me to say, “Thank you for helping my clarify my feelings. You’re very attractive but this isn’t going to work for me. Friends?”
I’m definitely an exception, and my heart reaches out to the woman in “Underwear” because I’ve been there. Our heroine tries to laugh at herself and her situation (“If fashion is your trade/Then when you’re naked/I guess you must be unemployed”), then attempts to make the best out of an awkward situation. After all, beneath the doubt, hints of the initial urge still exist, so she could at least get a little physiological release in a kinda sorta win-win situation:
If you close your eyes and just remember
That this is what you wanted last night
So why is it so hard for you to touch him
For you to go and give yourself to him, oh, Jesus!
Cocker’s delivery of “oh, Jesus” is a lusciously ambiguous moment—we don’t know if it means, “Oh, Jesus, I can’t do this” or “Oh, Jesus” then jumped into his waiting arms, overcome with lust. “Underwear” is a poetic gem, supported by exceptionally strong performances from Nick Banks and Russell Senior, whose violin fills mirror the woman’s inner tensions.
“Monday Morning,” a song about growing up and trying to get your shit together by trading one weekly routine (partying) for another (the weekly grind), isn’t as lyrically interesting as the other songs on Different Class, but is certainly one of the most musically fascinating pieces. Grounded in Steve Mackey’s fluid bass rhythm, the song is full of tempo shifts, key changes and unexpected starts and stops. I’d love to hear an all-instrumental version, for what I hear is the music for a potentially thrilling modern dance piece.
So many great albums fail to deliver truly satisfying endings, but I don’t think there could have been a better closer for Different Class than “Bar Italia.” If you’ve been to London, you’ve probably been there or at least passed by on your way to the theatre; if you haven’t, Bar Italia is a 22-hour a day café (15 hours on Sunday) where different social groups hang out at different hours (soccer fans in the afternoons and evenings, theatre-goers before and after, all-night celebrants taking up space to the crack of dawn). Jarvis and his friend belong to the latter clique, and have stumbled into Bar Italia after a night of clubbing spiced with ecstasy. The scene is set through a trio of flute, bass and arpeggiated guitar, a combination that blends exceptionally well with the night-weary vocal. When we meet the couple of interest, they’re not in the best of shape:
Now, if you can stand
I would like to take you by the hand, yeah
And go for a walk
Past people as they go to work
Let’s get out of this place before they tell us that we’ve just died
Oh, move, move quick, you’ve gotta move
Come on it’s through, come on it’s time
Oh, look at you, you, looking so confused
Just what did you lose?
One interpretation has Jarvis singing this song while staring into a bar mirror, but that interpretation is rendered invalid by a request he makes of his partner and by his spoken observation regarding how fucking awful that person looks:
If you can make
Could you get me one?
Two sugars would be great
‘Cause I’m fading fast
And it’s nearly dawn
If they knocked down this place, this place
It’d still look much better than you
The irony of the situation comes at the end of the second chorus, where Jarvis remarks, “If we get through this alive/I’ll meet you next week, same place, same time.” What? You want a repeat of this miserable experience? Well, yes and no . . . one can be addicted to excitement, to thrills, to possibilities . . . and one could be caught on a treadmill of one’s own devising. Jarvis explains it all in the fade:
That’s what you get from clubbing it
You can’t go home and go to bed
Because it hasn’t worn off yet
And now it’s morning
There’s only one place we can go
It’s around the corner in Soho
Where other broken people go
Candida Doyle makes a marvelous contribution in the choruses with a whirling circus-like organ sound that mirrors the spinning heads trying to make it through another late night in Bar Italia. These are people whose lives are spinning with no direction, no purpose, but they’ll repeat the routine next week, conclusively proving the definition of insanity as doing the same thing that put you in the shithole in the first place. “Bar Italia” is a more-than-suitable ending to an album immersed in the human experience . . . the good, the bad, the ugly and the fantasized.
While the reviews of Different Class were uniformly enthusiastic, I found it disappointing that no one evaluated the album through the lens of aesthetic experience.
Aesthetic experiences are highly personal; what one person experiences as aesthetic may be a colossal bore to another. Whether or not you have an aesthetic experience depends as much on your personal tastes, values and general impressions as it does on the quality of work itself. This often correlates to stage of life—sometimes we’re too young or too old to bother to open our minds and hearts to certain artists and their works. Our education also has a significant influence on our aesthetic openness. For years I studiously avoided Shakespeare because my first experience was in the half-assed public high school I attended where the tenured teacher was just holding on long enough to retire with a pension. My attitude towards Old Willie completely flipped when I saw a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when I was in college.
Most definitions of aesthetic experience are dry and scholarly, a series of attempts to grasp the concept from a purely technical-intellectual perspective. Go ahead and Google “aesthetic experience” and prepare yourself to be less than thrilled with the results. I’ve only found one definition that truly encompasses the existential nature of the phenomenon:
An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak; when you’re present in the current moment; when you’re resonating with the excitement of this thing that you’re experiencing; when you are fully alive.
Sir Ken Robinson
When listening to Different Class, I find myself completely engaged from beginning to end, undistracted by outer stimuli or inner thoughts, concentrating entirely on the stories and the music—and when the music stops, I find it impossible and undesirable to move from my chair. My senses are operating at their peak and I want the feeling to last forever. During that phase I reflect on the myriad emotions I experienced—delight, laughter, tears, empathy, outrage, surprise. I spend time appreciating the nuance in Jarvis Cocker’s delivery, the connections between musical arrangements and storylines, the discipline and tightness of the band. I try to make sense as to why this particular piece of music moved me so, and I arrive at the obvious answer: it expressed thoughts, beliefs and feelings that I had always held but could never quite articulate.
The experience of a Different Class is a completely satisfying and enriching aesthetic experience.