A breakthrough album fifteen years in the making . . . the culmination of a long road that wound and unwound several times, snaking off in a myriad of directions . . . a journey of starts and stops that led at least one member to believe “that I’d misspent my youth in a crap retro band when I could have had a proper job.”
Fortunately for posterity, Russell Senior and the other members of Pulp hung in there long enough for the breaks to finally fall their way. The Pulp before His ‘N’ Hers showed flashes of brilliance but also a stubborn inconsistency that cooled major label interest. Two years before the album’s release, Pulp finally revealed indications of a signature sound and style in the form of a couple of well-received singles that caught the attention of Island Records, allowing the band to reach a wider audience—an opportunity multiplied to the nth degree by their good fortune to have stumbled onto the emerging Britpop scene.
The primary weakness of His ‘N’ Hers (as noted in my review of Different Class) is technical—the mix isn’t clean enough to properly separate Jarvis Cocker’s voice and give it the clarity it deserves. A good set of headphones pretty much resolves that problem, allowing the listener to thoroughly enjoy Cocker’s witty tales and keen insight into socio-cultural dynamics. The compositions on His ‘N’ Hers feel more disciplined and intentional than their earlier work, and though the album still retains some of the synth-pop/dance sound that marked Separations, there is greater integration of keyboards, guitar and bass to balance things out and give the music more muscle.
“Joyriders” is a composition combining two distinct moods, one in the verses and one in the bridge. I’d characterize the verse mood as “drunkenly playful with underlying tension,” largely formed by Steve Mackey’s growling bass and Nick Banks’ loose drumming. Here Jarvis answers the age-old question, “What do teenage boys do when puberty’s flood of testosterone disables brain cell development?” “Stupid shit,” responds Mr. Cocker, albeit in more insightful language:
We can’t help it, we’re so thick we can’t think,
Can’t think of anything but shit, sleep and drink.
Oh, and we like women;
“Up the women” we say,
And if we get lucky,
We might even meet some one day.
Oh you, you in the Jesus sandals,
Wouldn’t you like to come
Over and watch some vandals smashing up someone’s home?
If I didn’t know that this song was written when the Internet was still in its infancy, I would have assumed that the song was about incels, those “involuntary celibates” who inhabit an ugly corner of cyberspace where discussion is “often characterized by resentment, misogyny, misanthropy, self-pity and self-loathing, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people (Wikipedia).” While we may laugh at the punch line, “And if we get lucky/We might even meet some one day,” boys like those depicted here and in the incel community embrace their toxic masculinity, representing a real danger to the social fabric.
That danger is expressed best in the music of the bridge, which follows an abrupt halt to the driving music of the verses. Though Pulp has slowed the tempo and adjusted the chord pattern, what’s most important from a compositional perspective is what they didn’t change—the general chord structure of opening with a C major chord while ending with the slightly-off B major chord, one long half-step away from resolution. The tension created by that out-of-place chord is tripled in the various recitations of the bridge, forming moments like those scenes in horror flicks when instead of running away from danger, the dumb ass heads straight for the closed door. Things get really creepy in the last go-round when Jarvis whispers the first two lines and then lowers his voice on the truncated closing line (I love Candida Doyle’s eerie piano sequence here). The exhibitionist phrase “Don’t you want to come and see?” is gone, placing all the focus on the tragedy:
Mister, we just want your car,
‘Cause we’re taking a girl to the reservoir.
Oh, all the papers say,
It’s a tragedy
We’re not sure what kind of tragedy occurred at one of the many reservoirs surrounding Sheffield, but rape and/or murder would be a safe bet. “Joyriders” may have seemed an odd choice for an opening number, but we live in a world where horror films featuring gruesome murders qualify as “camp” and unspeakable crimes sell newspapers and increase ratings. I hope that more than a few listeners were able to get past the sensationalistic aspects of the song to grasp the more serious underlying message.
Jarvis Cocker offered us two interpretational paths to “Lipgloss,” the first single released from the album. The cheekier comment (“‘Lipgloss’ was specifically about social skills going rusty. That and the fear of large shopping malls like Meadowhall in Sheffield”) isn’t much help. The more sober and meaningful observation is found in Mark Sturdy’s Truth and Beauty: The Story of Pulp:
The title came from a story I heard about an anorexic girl who used to eat only lipgloss. And the rest of the song—about a girl who has her self-confidence bashed down by a bad relationship—is based on someone I know. I think it’s important to express those stories so that victims know they’re not the only ones suffering.
The funny thing about “Lipgloss” is that the music supports the cheekier comment with its almost carnival-like synth-heavy instrumentation creating a devil-may-care, whirling effect. By contrast, the lyrics support Cocker’s more sober and empathetic translation:
And you feel such a fool,
For laughing at bad jokes,
And putting up with all of his friends,
And kissing in public.
What are they gonna say when they run into you again?
That your stomach looks bigger and your hair is a mess,
And your eyes are just holes in your face.
And it rains every day,
And when it doesn’t,
The sun makes you feel worse anyway.
He changed his mind last Monday,
Now you’ve gotta leave by Sunday, yeah.
(Chorus) You’ve lost your lipgloss honey, oh yeah.
Now nothing you do can turn him on,
You had it once and now its gone.
Mark Sturdy saw the contrast differently: “. . . the thrilling, accusatory attack of the verses leads to a chorus that’s a bit over-poppy.” I don’t find the verses “thrilling” in the least—this girl is going through the trauma that always follows a woman’s attempt to base her self-worth on her ability to please a man. The fragility of her ego is highlighted by the not-uncommon belief among women that beauty products are essential to attracting men and achieving social acceptance. Her story isn’t thrilling—when these façades collapse, it’s fucking embarrassing and painful. To my ears, the jarring conflict between music and lyrics reflects the jarring conflict between the real self and the fake self we present to the world in our pathetic search for validation from others.
“Acrylic Afternoons” is one of those peek-behind-the-curtains songs that would become a Jarvis Cocker specialty. Here he eschews the role of revenge-seeking voyeur he would play so well in “I Spy,” instead becoming an active participant in the naughty goings-on of the neighborhood:
Can I stay here,
Lying under the table together with you now?
Can I hold you?
Forever in acrylic afternoons
I want to hold you tight
Whilst children play outside
And wait for their mothers to finish with lovers
And call them inside for their tea.
It’s obvious he cherishes his role as lover as well as the delicious secrecy attached to an adulterous afternoon fuck, every sensation seared in his memory—and those impressions are quite poetic:
On a pink quilted eiderdown,
I want to pull your knickers down.
Net curtains blow slightly in the breeze.
Lemonade light filtering through the trees.
It’s so soft and it’s warm.
Just another cup of tea please (one lump thanks).
My only frustration with the song is I wanted more detail as to how he got her out of the green jumper and then from the settee to the floor and under the table. I’m envisioning some kind of “tumble to the ground” moment as in “I Think We’re Alone Now,” but I would have preferred the graphic specifics. Speaking of old songs from the 60’s, a comparison of “Acrylic Afternoons” to the Goffin-King creation “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is illuminating. Mickey Dolenz competently rattled off a stream of superficial suburban stereotypes (how’s that for alliteration?), but for all we know, mom was in the master bedroom banging her teenage son’s best friend while dad was busy slathering on the barbecue sauce. The people who live in Pleasant Valley are caricatures; the lovers in “Acrylic Afternoons” are delightfully wicked human beings forced into secrecy because of social and religious conventions. Evil they may be, but I like them a whole lot better.
Reprising his role as defender-savior of women in shitty relationships, Jarvis urges an unnamed woman to dump her controlling boyfriend in “Have You Seen Her Lately?” While I appreciate the sentiments, this song never really comes together musically or lyrically—the supporting music is too grand in the disco sense of the word and the lyrics lack the incisive wit of “Lipgloss.” To my ears, the arrangement resembles an update of a 60’s Walker Brothers number, so perhaps Jarvis’ admiration of Scott Walker got the best of him here.
Though the guitar duet featured in “Babies” is played by Cocker and Russell Senior, the chords originated with drummer Nick Banks, who was messing around with a guitar during a rehearsal break and strummed a chord combination he identified as “one of them is G, no idea what the other one is” (a Dmaj7, for the record). The combination caught Jarvis Cocker’s ear and “Literally 20 minutes after I’d played those first two chords, we had the entire song, basically.” As would later happen with “Common People” there was some initial squeamishness about “poppiness,” but fortunately for posterity, everyone got over it and a Pulp classic was born. Released as a single in 1992 and virtually ignored, “Babies” reappeared on His ‘N’ Hers and as an EP single that made the UK Top 20.
The arpeggiated chord combination and Russell Senior’s main guitar riff are irresistibly catchy, especially when Nick and Mark Webber kick in with the eminently danceable beat. If you can’t break into a smile during the instrumental intro to “Babies,” you’re either dead or an artistic snob of the highest order (pretty much the same thing). POPPY DOES NOT ALWAYS EQUATE TO LACKING SUBSTANCE. In this case, the lyrics are anything but poppy, for just like the legendary Cole Porter, Jarvis Cocker has the ability to imbue his stories-in-song with both wit and insight.
According to Flavorwire, Jarvis told the audience at Radio City Music Hall “that the song was essentially autobiographical” (although only he knows exactly how much is true).” I can certainly see him as a teen sitting in the hallway with his wannabe girlfriend suppressing giggles as they surreptitiously listened to the girl’s elder sister banging one of apparently many boys she lured to her bedroom. I can also believe that the experience was just an unsatisfying teaser for him and that of course he “wanted more”:
I wanted to see as well as hear,
And so I hid inside her wardrobe.
And she came ’round four,
And she was with some kid called David,
From the garage up the road.
I listened outside I heard her.
If that elder teenage sister was already fucking mechanics, I can guarantee you that she grew up and became an extremely successful dominatrix.
The chorus temporarily interrupts the tale to provide keen insight into the emotional stew of a pubescent teenager on libidinal overload. He simply doesn’t have the words to describe exactly what he’s feeling, so he resorts to a combination of extreme convention and oops-I-didn’t-really-mean-that:
Oh I want to take you home.
I want to give you children.
You might be my girlfriend, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Uh, you got things a little backward there, dude. You better pray that Daddy doesn’t own a shotgun.
The stud of the future doesn’t share his closeted escapade with the girl he intends to fill with babies, but allegedly follows her as she pops into the home of another guy “when his mum and dad were gone.” He claims he heard them laughing, but I think this entire passage is something he made up to justify his closing act of bonking the sister (definitely NOT autobiographical, as Cocker didn’t wet his whistle until he was 19):
We were on the bed when you came home,
I heard you stop outside the door.
I know you won’t believe it’s true,
I only went with her ’cause she looks like you, my God!
That is the ultimate lame excuse—but so very, very true to life. Cocker’s narration is positively brilliant, adjusting his phrasing to express the range of pubescent emotions: embarrassment, denial, misdirected passion and the pathetic guilt of an unpracticed liar. Russell Senior is marvelous on guitar, offering up a varied mix of counterpoints in both the uptempo and quiet passages, and Candida’s multi-pronged keyboard contributions add to the theatre of it all.
The brilliance of “Babies” is sadly missing from the way-too-long “She’s a Lady,” and its resemblance to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” doesn’t qualify as a tribute. I can do without “Happy Endings,” a sort of torch song about a failed affair that doesn’t live up to its promise because it never had a promise to begin with.
There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding “Do You Remember the First Time?” largely due to the promotional strategy used to hawk the single. Let’s be clear: the song has little to do with Jarvis Cocker losing his virginity—it’s about a man expressing his frustration that his lover chooses to maintain a sexual relationship with another man. It’s possible that the woman in question was also his initial experience in the sack, but the lyrics are somewhat ambiguous on that score. To promote the song, Cocker came up with the idea of shooting a video filled with various British luminaries recalling their first-time fuck experiences, so a lot of people assumed that the song also dealt with that rite of passage.
Like most first-time bangs, the video is painfully anti-climactic and I can’t believe that anyone who managed to get through all twenty-six minutes of it rushed out and bought the single. The dullness of the film is understandable: the first time is usually a very awkward experience largely because we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing, and recalling our incompetence isn’t a very pleasant trip down memory lane. I wrote about my first time in my four-part tale of my sexual development (since removed from the blog):
I had my first fuck the summer I turned fourteen. I decided on a guy I knew from school and invited him over to the house one summer day when my parents were at work. He lasted about a minute and a half and I never came close to orgasm. Still, the brief moment of other-worldliness piqued my interest enough to continue my pursuit of erotic pleasure.
The song itself is a showcase for the indirect and snarky communication that accompanies many a secretive affair, where the fundamental dishonesty of the act detracts from its enjoyment. Disappointed that his squeeze has to go home to Papa, the narrator takes a few swipes at his rival while indirectly marketing his allegedly superior sexual prowess: “I know you’re gonna let him bore your pants off again” and (the real zinger) “Still you bought a toy that can reach the places he never goes.” There isn’t much more to the tale than that, though controversy swirled over the line “No, I don’t care if you screw him/Just as long as you save a piece for me.” What’s sad is that the negative reaction to that line in some quarters had more to do with puritanic beliefs that such matters should not be aired in public rather than the more serious implication that the narrator views his lover as nothing more than a piece of ass. Musically, “Do You Remember the First Time?” features marvelously long builds to the repetitions of the chorus and a spirited vocal from Cocker, so I fully understand why it’s earned its status as the opener for Pulp reunion concerts.
I’m not exactly sure what motivated the inclusion of “Pink Glove” on the album, as it virtually repeats the scenario found in “Do You Remember the First Time?” (male competition for pussy) and suffers from muddied production. Even the best set of headphones on the planet won’t help you understand Jarvis Cocker’s muffled and muddled lyrics on “Someone Like the Moon,” and as a song exploring the phenomenon of loneliness, it ain’t exactly “Eleanor Rigby.”
The album proper ends with the largely spoken-word track “David’s Last Summer.” I’m not sure if this David is the same David who slipped it to the elder sister in “Babies,” but if it is, he became a crashing bore in the interlude. Consider this passage:
The room smells faintly of suntan lotion
In the evening sunlight and when you take off your clothes,
You’re still wearing a small pale skin bikini.
And then consider the fact that rather than allowing himself the pleasure of working up a good stiff one and putting it to immediate use, David decides to take the girl swimming. David! Do you know what cold water does to a dick? What the hell is the matter with you? Perhaps David should be forgiven because the iconic Seinfeld episode “The Hamptons” (more popularly known as the “shrinkage episode”) did not air until a month after His ‘N’ Hers hit the shelves.
Fortunately, for me, I bought the album in the Ew-natted Stayts of ‘Merka, so my album closes with the previously-released single “Razzmatazz.” Having been dumped by a girl who wanted to live a more glamorous and showy life, Cocker revels in the schadenfreude occasioned by the girl’s rapid post-relationship decline (Translation: Milk Tray = Box of Cadbury chocolates):
You started getting fatter three weeks after I left you
Now you’re going with some kid who looks like some bad comedian
Are you gonna go out, are you sitting at home eating boxes of Milk Tray?
Watch TV on your own, aren’t you the one with your razzmatazz and your nights on the town?
What makes this bitter song work is Cocker’s full embrace of his bitterness, capturing a moment of sweet revenge that nearly everyone on the planet has experienced at one time or another. Though we may regret those feelings later and hope that we can forget about the experience and move on, we can’t deny that those feelings were real at the time. Cocker was right when he commented on the lyrics (“I don’t think they’re seedy. They’re just true to life”); one of his most endearing qualities is his willingness to talk about the human failings that no one wants to admit.
The music makes for a much stronger closer than “David’s Last Summer,” with its strong forward movement, upbeat tempo and a power-packed rhythm section. Needless to say, Jarvis throws caution to the wind and gives us a bravura performance combing snark and justifiable exasperation.
Though far from perfect, His ‘N” Hers contains more than enough strong material to justify its nomination for the Mercury Prize, though both His ‘N’ Hers and Parklife lost out to the popular dance album Elegant Slumming by the M People. There’s certainly no shame attached to losing to an album featuring Heather Small’s vocals, and Pulp would crush the competition a couple of years later when Different Class took home the gold. I’ve always considered His ‘N’ Hers the album that made Different Class possible, the moment when Pulp worked out most of the kinks and Jarvis Cocker began to receive well-deserved validation for his uniquely honest approach on the subjects of sex, status and adolescence. Validation builds confidence, and in Different Class, Pulp would use that confidence to take their music to another level entirely.