Jarvis Cocker and company have never shied away from making grand statements, and We Love Life, Pulp’s latest album, is no exception. Rather than sarcasm, the title signifies a hard-won conclusion. We Love Life explores the theme of recovery, answering the darkness of its predecessor, the glorious come-down of 1998’s This is Hardcore, with an unequivocal affirmative.
We Love Life marks the first time ‘60s teen-idol Scott Walker has produced a record for anyone other than himself. Known as much for his influence on others as for his own work—both Radiohead and Blur formed as a direct result of his records—Walker emerged from relative reclusivity to work with Pulp. Not surprisingly then, he has left his mark, replacing the synth-textures that have characterized the sound of the past three Pulp records with the epic orchestrations that have characterized much of Walker’s best-known work. Some might accuse him of overproduction, but that criticism could apply to each of Pulp’s records; by this point, their sonic ambition virtually defines Pulp’s sound.
A cursory glance at the tracklisting of We Love Life—“Weeds”, “Birds in Your Garden”, “Trees”, and “Sunrise”—suggests an overriding theme of nature. But though pastoral metaphors hint at core of the record, they do not comprise it. In fact, Cocker’s worldview—indeed his understanding of the human condition—has not lightened since This is Hardcore. It may have even darkened. Fortunately, the songwriting remains as strong and tuneful as ever.
We Love Life begins unexpectedly with the marching rhythms of “Weeds”. The song appears to be some sort of class manifesto, the latest in a long line of Pulp’s outsider anthems with weeds representing society’s outcasts. But the cause of the Weeds cannot be restricted to a single class; it’s more an issue of heart vs. mind, or soul vs. body, etc. As Cocker rails against the powers-that-be, he exalts the disillusionment that comes as a result of oppression. Apparently, this vulgar sort of disillusionment fosters a unique creativity that civilized society cultivates, exploits, and then sweeps under the carpet.
The story continues in “The Night Than Minnie Timperly Died”, where disillusionment and loss of innocence take on a disastrous form. The song opens with the title character’s assertion that “there’s a light that shines/ on everything and everyone/ and it shines so bright/ brighter even than the sun”. By the end of the song, Minnie has been murdered and Jarvis is screaming, “Oh Minnie, I can feel the pain” repeatedly. “The Trees”, a monolith of a song, finds Cocker upset about his lack of free will, “you try to shape the world to what you want the world to be/ carving your name a million times won’t bring you back to me”. The mention of trees does not evoke anything pastoral. Instead, they—ahem—root Jarvis’ romanticism in reality. Instead, the trees suggest a feeling of interconnectedness and perspective.
Cocker further explores his place in the world on the next track, the album’s cinematic centerpiece, “Wicker Man”. To do this, he employs another nature metaphor, this time a river, to get his point across. The Wicker River, murky and smelly, links it all up: good, evil, ugliness, beauty, past, present, and future. Against a wall of flowing acoustics and atmospheric keyboards, the song paints a panorama of human life, both broad and specific. In final lines of the song, Cocker introduces the theme of surrender, pledging to go, “wherever the river may take me/ wherever the river may take us/ wherever it wants us to go”. With the struggle against the current of his life shown to be fruitless, his only chance at salvation—“to surface surrounded by grass and tress”—comes from admission and surrender to it. It would seem that the road past This is Hardcore has been found.
From there, We Love Life only appears to lighten up. “I Love Life” may offer the first glimpse of hope, but it does not come cheaply. Instead, Jarvis must first asserts the tragedy of daily life—“another day, another major disaster”—and then declares the earnestness of his intent, singing “corny I know, but you had better believe it: I love my life”. The song closes with the album’s stunning motto, “You got to fight to the death for the right to live your life”.
Following genuine and unique light-heartedness of “Birds in Your Garden” comes “Bob Lind (The Only Way is Down)”, a more appropriate title for which might be, “the only way up is down”. It is here that Cocker makes the thesis of the album explicit: in times of trouble, life will not get better until it gets worse: “It will not stop, it will get worse from day to day/ ‘til you admit that you’re a fuck-up/ like the rest of us/ oh, that’s the time you fall apart/ that’s the time the teardrops start/ that’s the time you fall in love again”. This lesson comes from hard-fought experience, as Cocker tells us, “I have no pride left, I have nothing left to prove—no I am a fuck-up/ just the same as you”.
The next song, “Bad Cover Version”, serves as warning to those looking for a shortcut to happiness. Cocker outlines a common attempt of evading pain, that is, via substitution: “a bad cover version of love/ is not the real thing”. Referring to the new lover of an ex-girlfriend, Cocker warns with characteristic humor, “like a later ‘Tom and Jerry’ where the two of them could talk/ like the Stones since the Eighties/ . . . like Planet of the Apes on TV/ the second side of ‘Til the Band Comes In* . . . :/ he’s gonna let you down in the end”. After the bleakness of “Roadkill”, the album ends with “Sunrise”, on which Jarvis clarifies his point even more: after the night must come the day. And that’s where he leaves us.
We Love Life accomplishes something tremendous. Without pulling a single punch about the baseness of the human condition and without idolizing romantic love, it offers a glimpse of genuine redemption. And that’s about as much as anyone can expect from a record. That and some good tunes, of course.
*Producer Scott Walker’s fifth album(!)