Rock journalists have a habit of bending a band’s history into a Behind the Music-style template. Said band struggles through a few years of obscurity. Said band releases an album that catapults them into superstardom. Huge tours, massive amounts of drugs and internal arguments, combined with the inability to cope with newfound fame begin to corrode said band. And if the lead singer of said band band is famously standoffish to the press, and the follow-up album either contains no discernible hits or challenges listener expectations, the album is written off as a “career suicide” album.
Pulp’s This Is Hardcore quickly joined Faith No More’s Angel Dust and Nirvana’s In Utero as a perceived career suicide album upon its release. It certainly fit the career suicide mold: The album didn’t contain any instantaneously appealing songs like their previous album Different Class, the band was going through some heavy internal conflict and lead singer Jarvis Cocker opted to jet to New York to decompress over the holidays. Alone. Around this time, longtime Pulp guitarist/violinist Russell Senior left the band.
Down a longtime bandmember and in full isolation mode, Cocker could have easily written an album about what an utter bitch fame was. But just as he was able to strike a universal chord with the class warfare call to arms classics “Miss Shapes” and “Common People”, Jarvis tackled something even scarier than fame backlash: the inevitable acceleration of middle age.
In the opening song “The Fear”, Cocker sings about panic attacks and general unease. In one of his most hilarious double-meanings put to song, Cocker laments “you can’t get anyone to come in the sack”. People who mock the geezers at live shows may well pay attention to “Help the Aged”, specifically the line “If you look very hard behind those lines upon your face, you may see where you are headed and it’s such a lonely place.” It’s appropriate to point out that the most upbeat song on This Is Hardcore, “Party Hard”, feels like an obligatory tacked-on number. Still, it strangely fits into the album’s overall tone.
If the downbeat subject matter was the stuff of career suicide albums, that didn’t stop the band from creating some of its strongest songs. True, many songs did not sink in until the fifth or sixth listen, but there was still enough stuff to bring listeners back. Guitarist Mark Webber manages to seamlessly weave through baroque pop arrangements (“A Little Soul”) to ripping guitar rock (check out the end of “Glory Days”). Drummer Nick Banks kicks huge holes into the cinematic closer “The Day After Tomorrow” and keyboardist Candidia Doyle gives a nice touch of noir to “Seductive Barry”.
Many of the lush arrangements that were thought to be too arty or abstract in 1998 on This is Hardcore are now fairly common in music, thanks to artists like Sufjan Stevens and St. Vincent. If the music may have been ahead of its time, the video for the title track was certainly a revelation. Nearly a decade before the empty excesses of ’60s suburbia were on display in Mad Men, the same outfits, stage sets and characters were on display in Pulp’s video.
One naïve reason why This Is Hardcore may not have received its due in the late ’90s (even though the album was nominated for a Mercury Prize, it was still considered a commercial disappointment), may be because some of the music critics were still partying in their 20s. Now, saddled with mortgages, love handles and even phrases like “I’d love to catch that show, but it’s a weeknight” or “I just can’t drink like I used to anymore” coming up more and more in their vocabulary, some of the “realness” of This Is Hardcore may finally be settling in for some former detractors.
In the liner notes of the 2006 remastered version, Cocker described the album as “prickly” and “difficult”. He even goes as far as to say the album is the sound of failure, but with a wink, he concludes “…but it’s the most successful rendition of the sound of failure ever put to tape. So there.” It may be a downer, but with songs as uplifting as “Sylvia” and “Glory Days”, the album could hardly be described as an attempt to throw Pulp-come-lately fans off the bandwagon. After wrestling for nearly 50 minutes with panic attacks, failed fatherhood and wet dishes, Cocker crosses off a laundry list of insecurities at the end of “The Day After the Revolution”. Perfection, guilt, “the fear”, Sheffield, men, women, cholesterol — all over. The song, and album takes you through the nightmares of growing into adulthood, but the music gives you plenty of incentive to wade through the inevitable. Far from a career suicide, This Is Hardcore is the band at its most life-affirming.