Life, Love, and Contractual Obligation
Few British bands have come close to matching the remarkable string of excellent albums that Pulp has put together over the past 10 years. Led by singer Jarvis Cocker, arguably the best lyricist in pop music today, and backed up by a superb, yet unassuming group of musicians (keyboardist Candida Doyle, drummer Nick Banks, bassist Steve Mackey, guitarist Mark Webber, and former guitarist/violinist Russell Senior) the Sheffield band is also one of the only artists to come out of the insane Britpop craze of 1994-95 unscathed, likely due to the fact that the members of the band were a bit older and more grounded than the likes of Blur and Oasis. In fact, between 1978 and 1992, Pulp went through a lengthy gestation period, during which they tried on different sounds and styles, in search of their definitive voice (the results are very spotty at best, and this period is best explored on the 1996 compilation Countdown). The 16 songs on their new compilation, Hits, are culled from their subsequent albums for Island Records, and while proving to be an outstanding album’s worth of timeless music, it’s merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Released in 1994, His ‘n’ Hers was an ambitious, yet slightly flawed album that showed the band going for broke on their most ambitious record yet. Despite its mis-steps, the album was an important one, as Pulp started to show they were on the cusp of something really special. The inimitable Jarvis Cocker can never write a conventional love song, and we should be thankful, as his own compositions are filled with such self-loathing, self-deprecating, dark humor, themes perfectly captured on the hilariously bittersweet “Babies”. The ‘80s dance-infused “Razzmatazz” takes on the shallowness of constant partying (“It’s half past 10 in the evening and you wish you were dead / ‘Cos all those stupid little things, they ain’t working”), while the new wave sound continues on “Lipgloss”, a heartbreaking portrait of a woman in a strained relationship (“Now nothing you do can turn him on / There’s something wrong / You had it once and now it’s gone”). “Do You Remember the First Time?” is prototypically desperate, obsessive Cocker fare, in which he sings to a former girlfriend he desires, but can’t have (“You bought a toy that can reach the places he never goes . . . I don’t care if you screw him just as long as you save a piece for me”). The song, with its brooding beat, chiming guitars, and layers of synths, only hints at the darkness under the surface.
With the release of 1995’s Different Class, Pulp had fully realized their potential with a superbly crafted album that skewered the “Cool Britannia” that Prime Minister Tony Blair would go on to promote. Different Class is an undeniable classic that still burns with passion today. The album’s centerpiece is the smash single “Common People”, which combines a contagious pop hook with Cocker’s acid-tongued social commentary about upper-class people who enjoy “slumming” with the lower ranks (“Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you / And the stupid things that you do / Because you think that poor is cool”). The song climaxes with a passionate diatribe by Cocker that sounds like it came straight out of a Mike Leigh film: “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.”
|MEMORABLE QUOTATIONS OF JARVIS COCKER Jarvis Cocker ranks among the great wits in popular music today, and his lyrics are never short of quotable lines. Here’s a sampling of his finest moments from Pulp songs that were not included on Hits: “My favourite parks are car parks, grass is something you smoke, birds are something you shag. Take your Year in Provence and shove it up your ass.” (“I Spy”) “The river flows on beneath pudgy 15-year-olds addicted to coffee whitener, courting couples naked on Northern Upholstery & pensioners gathering dust like bowls of plastic tulips.” (“Wickerman”) “We were brought up on the Space-Race, now they expect you to clean toilets. When you have seen how big the world is how can you make do with this?” (“Glory Days”) “I am not Jesus though I have the same initials.” (“Dishes”) “Just one hit and I feel great. And I support the Welfare State.” (“Cocaine Socialism”) “The meek shall inherit absoulutely nothing at all. If you stopped being so feeble you could have so much more.” (“The Day After the Revolution”) “Little girl with blue eyes, theres a hole in your heart, and one between your legs. You’re never gonna wonder which one he’s going to fill in spite of what he says.” (“Little Girl With Blue Eyes”) “Are you really not at home? Or are you there but not alone screening calls you don’t want to receive—meaning calls, calls that come from me.” (“Ansaphone”) “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.” (“F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.”) “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. The sound of children playing in the park comes from far away, and time slows down to the speed of the specks of dust floating in the light from the window” (“David’s Last Summer”)|
Also from Different Class, “Sorted For E’s & Wizz” takes a sober view at how ridiculous rave culture can look: “Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel? / Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?” The nostalgic “Disco 2000” combines modern dance beats with a guitar riff stolen from Laura Branigan’s “Gloria”, and the pretty, acoustic ballad “Something Changed” tackles the subject of fate in a very similar way that the great director Kieslowski did in his film Red that same year: “When we woke up that morning we had no way of knowing that in a matter of hours we’d change the way we were going / Where would I be now if we’d never met? / Would I be singing this song to someone else instead?”
Instead of following up the hugely successful Different Class with an album comprised of “Common People” and “Disco 2000” knock-offs, 1998’s This Is Hardcore had Cocker turning the tables, writing some of the darkest, most introspective songs of his career. With this album, Pulp challenged their audience, and although album sales decreased dramatically, This Is Hardcore was a near-perfect record. The sardonic “Help the Aged” has Cocker facing his own mortality with his characteristic humor, as he sings, “If you look very hard behind the lines on their face / You may see where you are headed / And it’s such a lonely place.” “A Little Soul” lifts its tune from Smokey Robinson’s catalog, as Cocker sings about a man meeting his estranged son, while on the shamelessly ‘80s “Party Hard”, Cocker does his best David Bowie impersonation as he questions whether a hedonistic life is worth it in the long run: “Why do we have to half kill ourselves just to prove we’re alive?” The seven-minute epic “This Is Hardcore” is Pulp’s most daring song, as it blends a filthy, dirge-like melody with orchestral samples, as Cocker’s lyrics get almost disturbingly personal: “This is the eye of the storm / It’s what men in stained raincoats pay for / But in here it is pure.”
Released three and a half years later, We Love Life contains both the social satire of Different Class and the introspection of This Is Hardcore, but this time around, the satire is less bitter, and their overall view of things is considerably more optimistic. The beautiful single “The Trees” uses a sumptuous strings sample while Cocker uses more sensual, more elemental metaphors in his lyrics (“The smell of leaf-mold and the sweetness of decay / Are the incense at the funeral procession here today”). The hilarious “Bad Cover Version” has Cocker singing to a former lover about all the “sad imitations” of lovers she’s taken since: “Like Planet of the Apes on TV, the second side of Til the Band Comes In / Like an own-brand box of cornflakes, he’s going to let you down my friend.” The sweeping “Sunrise”, released as a double a-side with “The Trees”, hints at Cocker’s more optimistic outlook on life, as it comes to a grandiose conclusion.
With so many great songs to choose from over Pulp’s last four albums, it’s hard to make a definitive compilation that’s guaranteed to please everyone, but they’ve done a good, albeit safe, job on Hits. Living up to the “Hits” theme, all the selections were single releases, with only “Mis-Shapes” from Different Class being omitted (due to the fact that the band apparently can’t stand the song). Still, would it have killed them to include the spectacular track “I Spy”, or perhaps a second disc that taps their wealth of quality B-sides and soundtrack contributions?
Oddly enough, the song “Underwear”, which was released as a split single with “Common People” in the summer of 1995, is only included on the UK version of Hits. It’s an excellent song, but perhaps ranks on a slightly lower tier on the Pulp catalog compared to the others, so on the international versions, it’s really no big deal, aside from the knowledge that there’s six or seven minutes of unused CD space (again, perfect for “I Spy”, but alas . . . ).
With Cocker now married with a child and living in France, and Pulp’s contract with Island now fulfilled, the band’s immediate future looks a bit bleak for fans. If it is indeed a farewell (there’s been no official word yet), we’re left with one last new song on Hits, the elegiac “Last Day of the Miners’ Strike”, a bit of a tribute to the band’s working class roots (“87 Socialism gave way to socializing / So put your hands up in the air / Once more the North is rising”) that builds up to a majestic spiritual at the end. “I used to hide from the sun,” Cocker sings on “Sunrise”, “Tried to live my whole life underground.” He now seems ready to discard his unofficial title of The Brooding Outsider, and open up and embrace life. After all, you can only mope for so long.
// Notes from the Road
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