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.
While you could make the case that both Blur’s shift to a distinctively American sound on Blur and the much-anticipated but ultimately horrid Oasis production Be Here Now should earn serious consideration as “the album that killed Britpop,” I have to go with Pulp’s This Is Hardcore as the coup de grâce.
To be fair, Britpop had pretty much run its course anyway. If you define the Beatlemania era as the period between “Please Please Me” and the last concert at Candlestick Park (The Beatles had already moved on, but the fans hadn’t), you’re talking about a little more than three-and-a-half years. Assuming Britpop covered the period between the first Suede album and the second Supergrass album, the phenomenon endured for about four years (and no, I don’t consider The Verve a Britpop band). Britpop had lasted longer than the psychedelic era and the original British punk movement, so it really was time for a change.
My selection of This Is Hardcore for this symbolic honor-of-sorts is based on a combination of factors. While Britpop was full of trenchant social criticism and black humor, it rarely crossed the line into dark and depressing. This Is Hardcore was described by its lyricist as “Songs about panic attacks, pornography, fear of death and getting old.” The music feels more like a film noir soundtrack, and Jarvis Cocker’s self-portrayal echoes the seedy loser archetype of noir films, someone like the hapless, hopeless Walter Neff in Double Indemnity.
I never thought I’d compare Jarvis Cocker to Fred MacMurray, but the shoe fits.
As he did in Different Class, Cocker wrote about what he knew: his own life. The difference is that he wasn’t a Britpop superstar when he crafted the lyrics to Different Class, and the experience he writes about in This Is Hardcore is of a man traumatized by fame, addicted to coke and desperately trying to find a piece of solid ground somewhere in the universe. If The Cure hadn’t already used the title, Pulp could have titled the album Disintegration and no one would have thought it inappropriate.
It didn’t help matters that Russell Senior had left the band, taking his first-class musicianship and artistic discipline with him. While This Is Hardcore has its moments, the album is marked by some very poor arrangements, some really bad ideas and occasionally sloppy execution that makes one miss the tightness of the band on His & Hers and Different Class. Senior’s absence is most strongly felt when Pulp attempts to compensate for his violin by increasing the use of electric guitar. Not only does the shift compromise Pulp’s signature sound, but the guitar tones on the album are frequently annoying.
The performance issues extend to Jarvis Cocker’s meandering vocal performances. Sometimes he finds the right tone, but every now and then he sounds like he’s suffering from a very bad cold (or maybe too much snow up the nose), and on a couple of occasions you’d think David Bowie had popped into the studio to do a guest turn at the mike. Oddly enough, the instability of his voice adds to the general pathos of the album, so in a curious way it successfully reinforces the disintegrative mood.
The lyrics also fall well short of the standards established by Different Class. There isn’t much in the way of wit on This Is Hardcore, nor are there many memorable lines. As for those who might excuse the lyricist on the basis that Cocker’s dark mood hampered his facility with the English language, I would point out that the best lines in Shakespeare come from the tragedies—especially Macbeth, the darkest of the lot. Somewhere in the midst of his wild ride through stardom, Jarvis Cocker lost his negative capability—the perspective of detachment Keats accurately identified as an essential factor in the creation of high-quality poetry. When Cocker wrote about his life experience on Different Class, he wrote with self-deprecating detachment. On This Is Hardcore, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that he is still too immersed in the experience and trappings of sudden fame to make any sense of it, often crossing the line into self-confessional melodrama that would have been more appropriately shared with his therapist.
This Is Hardcore doesn’t entirely lack value. If you listen to it through a film noir lens, the experience becomes more engaging and (for the most part) tolerable. A more informative angle is to view the album as a documentary detailing the impact of fame on the artist and the art. Through that perspective (and by considering the narratives of most of the other Britpop bands), we realize that Britpop died out for the same reasons that caused nearly every rock era to meet its demise: the unreality of celebrity, the disconnection from everyday life and the people who live that life, and the hopeless attempt to cope with the surrounding madness by turning to drugs.
I will give Pulp credit for making a clear statement of intent with the opening passage of “The Fear,” an ominous, funereal segment that represents a clean break from the energetic presentation of Different Class. Jarvis takes the stage as the character of man-falling-apart, alternating between short bursts of self-awareness and an apology to fans hoping for Different Class II:
This is our “Music from A Bachelor’s Den”
The sound of loneliness turned up to ten
A horror soundtrack from a stagnant waterbed
And it sounds just like this.
This is the sound of someone losing the plot
Making out that they’re okay when they’re not
You’re gonna like it but not a lot
The exposure of pretense (“making out that they’re okay when they’re not) is the most powerful message, an enduring indictment of the stigma attached to mental health and addiction problems—a stigma that makes it difficult to address those problems with any reasonable possibility of success. I cringe at the first two lines, though, which send a signal to the listener to expect a whole lot of self-pity to come into play.
Up to this point, Pulp is appropriately working in a minor key (A minor), a reliable means of communicating unpleasant emotions. After introducing the chorus with pure lyrical filler (“and the chorus goes like this”), they manage to ruin both mood and continuity by shifting to a major key, as if to say, “Hooray! We’re scared, lonely and temporarily celibate!” They make it even worse by adding a trio of female background vocalists singing their hearts out as if the heavens have burst open and the angelic hosts are proclaiming their asses off in the blinding light and ecstatic joy of The Resurrection. Let me correct Mr. Cocker here: THIS is the sound of someone losing the plot. I lose all interest at this point, easily tuning out the embarrassingly uninteresting lyrics, waking up only to feel quite annoyed at the superfluous introduction of weird electronic noises that must have seemed okay to the band but they’re not.
Jarvis then goes full nasal and seriously off-key in the male-as-masochist-in-a-dying-relationship tune, “Dishes.” Though he doesn’t exactly compare himself to Jesus, he uses the fact that “I have the same initials” as a basis for the Christ-related metaphor of the miraculous transformation of turning water into wine. It’s a torturous connection at best, and the mention of the crucifixion in the last verse is a serious stretch:
And I’m, I’m not worried that I will never touch the stars
‘Cause stars belong up in heaven
And the earth is where we are
And aren’t you happy just to be alive?
You’ve got no cross to bear tonight
It’s really difficult to believe that the man who wrote “Common People” could have come up with such empty lines, but there’s the evidence, right there, in plain view.
The rough start continues with “Party Hard,” where Jarvis does a second-rate disco-era Bowie imitation accompanied by intensely grating guitar tones. He makes a bad vocal even worse by applying a vodocoder to his voice to the randomly-appearing line, “Baby, you’re driving me crazy,” which also describes the way I feel when listening to this piece of crap. The only couplet that hints at a possible method behind the madness is “I was having a whale of a time until your uncle Psychosis arrived/Why do we have to half-kill ourselves just to prove we’re alive,” the poetic equivalent of using a sledgehammer to drive home the obvious.
Things do get better on the next track, but in the interests of balancing my evaluation, I’ll share a divergent opinion. Here’s Russell Senior’s recollection of what led to his departure:
For years, we spent a lot of time in Transit vans. But suddenly it was all gold discs, condos, famous mates and people whose reality comes from cocaine, telling you you’re great, night after night. I felt a revulsion for it. We were doing songs about common people and it was, “Jarvis, Prada’s on the phone, they’ve got your outfit.”
The last concert I did with Pulp was a corporate gig for a lager company in Barcelona. We were put up in a fantastic hotel, there were supermodels hanging around, but we were playing for bored executives. I felt myself backing away.
There were other things, such as awards ceremonies where somebody’s coke dealer has nicked your limo and you have to walk home because the record company are looking after Jarvis. We had become his backing band. Previously, the music always came collectively, from creative clashes, but I think Jarvis believed his own press and suddenly he was coming in with his own tunes. I didn’t think “Help the Aged” was worthy of following “Common People,” so I sabotaged it by playing blues guitar in the studio.
The Guardian, “The Ones that Got Away,” June 1, 2009
I agree that “Help the Aged” falls short of the standard set by “Common People,” but that song was the ultimate impossible act to follow. One of Jarvis Cocker’s most admirable qualities is the willingness to write songs about taboo topics, and in our youth-obsessed culture, getting old is one of the worst crimes a person can commit. Though sometimes the lyrics drift into Public Service Announcement territory, the empathy he expresses on behalf of these often-forgotten people is admirable:
Help the aged
‘Cause one day you’ll be older too
You might need someone who can pull you through
And if you look very hard
Behind those lines upon their face
You may see where you are headed
And it’s such a lonely place
I also whole-heartedly endorse the lines, “It’s time you took an older lover, baby/Teach you stuff, although he’s looking rough.” The couple who trained me in BDSM were twice my age (in their late 40’s at the time), and one of my favorite fucks is a guy in his 60’s.
Now that is a Public Service Announcement!
This is the one song on the album that demands I heap praise on Mark Webber’s guitar work, which alternates between sweet-and-lovely on the quiet verses and kicking ass on the Pixie-esque choruses. Though I wish they’d completely dispensed with the sore thumb bridge with Jarvis’ superfluous stutter, I consider “Help the Aged” one of the stronger arrangements on the album.
The title track is an even stronger musical composition, though credit for that goes to Peter Thomas, whose 1966 composition “Bolero on the Moon Rocks” was used as the central theme. Thomas is still with us at the age of 93, and while the bulk of his work involved sci-fi and horror soundtracks for television and film, this piece has a late-noir feel that would have been a good fit for 60’s noir films like Shoot the Piano Player or The Naked Kiss (most apt in this context, as the film is about a traumatized prostitute). Borrowing this remarkable piece of music could be considered a Pulp masterstroke; on the flip side, it shows that the band was running out of ideas and inspiration (or, as noted by Mr. Senior above, the band was no longer a collaborative enterprise).
The mood of the piece is smoky, reeking of debauched sexuality. As it turns out, Jarvis Cocker was watching a lot of porn in hotel rooms during Pulp’s commercial peak—oh, the glamorous life of a pop star!
‘This Is Hardcore’ is a bit about fame, actually… I ended up watching a lot of porn – hah! – on tour. If you get back to the hotel and you’ve got nothing to do, you put the adult channel on and have a look… It’s the way that people get used up in it. You’d see the same people in films, and they’d seem to be quite alive, and then you’d see a film from a year later and there’s something gone in their eyes. You can see it, that they’ve done it all and there’s nowhere else to go. There seemed to be something really poignant about that to me. (Q magazine 2012 interview)
Nice spin, but there’s scarcely a whiff of poignancy in the lyrics. There is an emphasis on the mechanical, impersonal production of porn (“then that goes in there/then that goes in there/then that goes in there/and then it’s over”), but really very little about what is “gone in their eyes.” Truth be told, Cocker sounds like your typically lonely lecher who watches these badly-acted, phony sex shows and fantasizes about someday directing a porn film himself:
You are hardcore, you make me hard
You name the drama and I’ll play the part
It seems I saw you in some teenage wet dream
I like your get-up, if you know what I mean . . .
I’ve seen all the pictures, I’ve studied them forever
I want to make a movie, so let’s star in it together
Don’t make a move till I say “action”
Oh, here comes the hardcore life
Bottom line: wake me up when the instrumental-only soundtrack version comes out—I’d buy it in a heartbeat. As for the rest, it’s obvious that Jarvis Cocker learned nothing while watching adult entertainment, so I hope he at least got his rocks off.
The “we’re all in this video together” theme continues, with “TV Movie,” a lost-love song with lyrics summarized quite nicely within the song itself: “All I know is I can’t even think/I can’t even think of anything clever to say.” I’ll second that motion! The arrangement is quite odd, featuring an acoustic guitar with unpleasant electronic residue on both channels for intro and first verse, followed by a leisurely build that never quite reaches a climax. Once the song vanishes into no one’s memory (except for the guy on Stereogum who thought it was the best thing Pulp ever did), we get “A Little Soul,” where Jarvis Cocker calls up the father who abandoned him in childhood and has him deliver a dramatic monologue to his now-adult son. This song has been singled out for praise by some reviewers; what I hear are clichés (you look like me, don’t grow up like me) and a son’s understandable resentment about abandonment that unfortunately negates any effort to understand the father’s motivations or circumstances. As Cocker was way too close to the subject matter to provide anything in the way of insight (such as filling us in on what he learned from the experience of abandonment), the song falls short in terms of emotional impact (unless you were abandoned by a parent in your childhood and can fill in the gaps). The pleasantly dull music is an exceptionally poor fit for what should have been a more thoughtfully constructed composition.
One could say that the moral of the story in “A Little Soul” is actually played out in the following song, “I’m a Man.” While it’s not the most original title, the song does capture Cocker’s thorough disgust with the cultural definition of maleness:
With your advertising sliding past my eyes
Like cartoons from other people’s lives
I start to wonder
What it takes to be a man
Well, I learned to drink
And I learned to smoke
And I learned to tell
A dirty joke
Oh, if that’s all there is then there’s no point for me
All very well and understood, but as in so many songs on This Is Hardcore, Cocker doesn’t dig any deeper, listing these most superficial characteristics as if he were filling out the grocery list. The question he poses—“So please can we ask why we’re still alive?”—is a throwaway, broad-brush question that ignores the truth that despite cultural programming, many men pay little or no attention to the all-powerful he-man image propagated by myth and modern advertising. I have few problems with the music, and from a structural perspective, “I’m a Man” is a solid piece of work. But what the hell is that noise that appears initially in the first chorus—is that a badly-distorted guitar or an electric kazoo? Whatever it is, it makes the song feel like more of a joke than a credible statement on masculinity.
If you’ve got eight-and-a-half minutes to kill and want to experience what it’s like to truly piss away your time, have I got a song for you! “Seductive Barry” is as complete an embarrassment as one can imagine, with Cocker playing off singer/rapper Neneh Cherry’s stereotypically seductive vocalizations as he embraces the role of egomaniacal lecher. If this is supposed to be satire, it lacks the bite; if it’s supposed to be an attempt to set the sexual experience to music, it’s fucking pathetic. I hereby nominate “I will light your cigarette with a star that has fallen from the sky” for the most ridiculous line in history, and tell you that when I’m done listening to this song, I want to run away from Jarvis Cocker as speedily as possible and take a long shower to cleanse myself of his disgusting aroma. Worst. Pulp. Song. Ever.
Jarvis Cocker’s strongest vocal on the album can be heard on “Sylvia,” an intriguing story of latent yearning for the unattainable beauty of a young man’s adolescence. The image of that long-lost Helen causes the narrator to insult a prospective partner (“You look just like Sylvia/Well, you look like her to me”), add injury to insult by launching into an extensive monologue about Sylvia’s likely whereabouts, and wrap things up by engaging the invisible Sylvia in a conversation (by this time, the prospective partner has probably left the table to call the police). What’s intriguing about what seems a narrative disaster is the hint that Sylvia was the victim of sexual abuse on the part of her father, an interpretation based on this sequence:
Her father’s living with some girl
Who’s a year younger than her
She’s living in the country now
Oh, she’s trying to get better
Her beauty was her only crime
The narrator then reveals that it isn’t only the lingering attraction that draws him to Sylvia but also the guilt that comes from the awareness that he too had questionable motives in his pursuit of the girl (though not of the predatory kind):
Who’s this man you’re talking to?
Can’t you see what he wants to do?
He thinks if he stands near enough then he will look as good as you
Oh, he don’t care about your problems
He just wants to show his friends
I guess I’m just the same as him
Oh, I just didn’t know it then
With genuine passion, Cocker sings the words he wishes he could say to Sylvia if she really were there, attempting to alleviate her misplaced sense of guilt and validate her self-worth:
I can’t help you but I know things are gonna get better
And please stop asking what it’s got to do with you
Oh, keep believing ’cause you know that you deserve better
The arrangement features strong build, good old-fashioned Pulp tightness and a very effective guitar solo in just the right tone (hooray!). While I think the lyrics could have been a bit more explicit, “Sylvia” is a definite plus, allowing Jarvis Cocker to explore one of those taboo topics where he is at his best.
“Glory Days” is probably the song that captures how I feel about most of This Is Hardcore: there are off-putting moments, occasionally brilliant lyrics, and promising possibilities that end with a thud. Cocker gives us Bowie AND the snow nose guy on the first verse, making me want to leap from my seat and rip the needle from the disc . . . but the line “and learn the meaning of existence in fortnightly installments” gets stuck in my head . . . so I press on to discover the best lyrics on the album:
Oh, my face is unappealing and my thoughts are unoriginal
I did experiments with substances
But all it did was make me ill
I used to do the I Ching
But then I had to feed the meter
Now I can’t see into the future
But at least I can use the heater
Oh, it doesn’t get much better than this
‘Cause this is how we live our glory days
And I could be a genius if I just put my mind to it
And I—I could do anything if only I could get round to it
Oh, we were brought up on the space race
Now they expect you to clean toilets
When you’ve seen how big the world is
How can you make do with this?
If you want me, I’ll be sleeping in
Sleeping in throughout these glory days
That is an excellent exposition of how the generation in power fills youthful heads with the unlimited possibilities that await them, then offers little in the way of help or real-world education to make any of those possibilities real. When your life is pure drudgery, what’s the fucking point? This is great stuff!
Unfortunately, the great stuff morphs into gibberish in the closing verse:
Yeah we’d love to hear your story
Just as long as it tells us where we are
That where we are is where we’re meant to be
Oh, come on, make it up yourself
You don’t need anybody else
And I promise I won’t sell these days to anybody else in the world but you
No-one but you (4)
Geez. I count at least three detours from the main narrative in seven lines. Foreplay without the orgasm really, really sucks.
And speaking of sucks—and we’re talking Yoko Ono-level sucks here—Pulp ends the program with “The Day After the Revolution,” fourteen minutes and fifty-eight seconds of sheer torture that leave me in a state of frothing madness. The song proper is a bloody mess, featuring noisy guitar, a frantic vocal and a barrage of disconnected lines mingling utter meaninglessness (“the revolution begins and ends with you”) with pathetic attempts at establishing artistic cred (“Bergman is over, irony is over”). Then, at the 4:52 mark, the band noise vanishes into background and we’re treated to a shimmery, synthesized organ sound for ten fucking minutes and six fucking seconds, interrupted only by Jarvis Cocker intoning the words, “Bye, bye” at the 9:56 mark. To pass the time, I started counting the overtones, grew bored with that after about a minute, and spent the rest of my time gnashing my teeth, wishing desperately to be transported to a more pleasant environment—something like Siberia in January or the Sahara in the summer.
Look. I don’t mind dark. It’s half the yin-yang of life, a valid approach to exploring the human experience. What I resent is dark done badly. And I firmly believe that Pulp simply had to follow Different Class with something that bore little resemblance. Had they tried to reproduce that experience, they would have essentially committed themselves to an artistically-limited formula. I support the attempt but bemoan the execution.
Pulp would return in 2001 with the far more coherent and satisfying album We Love Life, ending their run on a positive note. From a historical perspective, Pulp’s contributions definitely qualify as significant impactful, and I find it oddly fitting and curiously satisfying that the band that gave us the masterpiece of the era should be the band that symbolically laid that era to rest.