Pulp have a greatest hits record, and it’s about goddamned time. The enigmatic group, fronted by the inimitable Jarvis Cocker, are by far the oldest and wisest of the Britpop behemoths. Together since 1978, Cocker & Co. were fringe artists for over a decade before making their major label debut in 1994, with His ‘N’ Hers. Those years laboring thanklessly in obscurity have lent Pulp a maturity and resolve lacking in many of the bands who simply arose during those ’90s banner days. Yes, Pulp rode the wave, but they also saw it coming (maybe even helped to create it), and had the tenacity to maintain course after its crest.
That said, greatest hits records are always peculiar beasts, usually taking undue liberties with the words “greatest” or “hits”, or both. This particular collection is no exception. Though Pulp fans devout and casual will note its inclusion of the requisite Pulp hits — like the formerly inescapable, unforgivably catchy “Disco 2000” — it also harbors songs that are lesser hits (“This Is Hardcore”) and, well, just generally lesser (“Trees”). With the bar for greatness and hit-ness considerably lowered, it’s a wonder why the compilation sticks exclusively to post-popularity Pulp, bypassing little known but hearty gems from their early career. (Even if albums like It and Freaks remain untapped, it’s criminal to not include “My Legendary Girlfriend”, the first single to put the band on the map.)
What it does include, however, is largely top shelf, demonstrating the clever asides and bold melodies that are critical to the Pulp way. The album covers the group’s career chronologically, pulling equally from their four post-1994 albums. His ‘N’ Hers supplies the first four tracks, “Babies”, “Razzmatazz”, “Lipgloss”, and “Do You Remember the First Time”. These tracks together are awash with freewheeling synthy soundscapes, tarted up with categorically Cockeresque cheekiness. “Lipgloss” especially has a renewed sheen here, as Cocker details the downfall of a socialite who has lost her lover’s affections. “No wonder you’re looking thin / When all that you live on is lipgloss and cigarettes”, Cocker slithers, musing melodrama over the festival of keyboards. Then and now, a killer song.
The pace is kept up on the first song featured from 1995’s now classic Different Class, “Common People”. Different Class took the keen social observation of His ‘N’ Hers and worked it up to biting social commentary, and “Common People” is the most biting of them all. It is an anthem’s anthem — building to monstrous instrumental heights and scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs verses, working you up and pissing you off with equal verve. “Underwear”, which follows, is arousing too, but differently so — Cocker crooning lyrics practically dripping in sultry pathos. Let’s face it: Jarvis Cocker is the Barry White of Britpop. “Something Changed”, “Sorted for E’s and Wizz”, and “Disco 2000” also make appearances.
Missing from both the His ‘N’ Hers andDifferent Class material, though, is the surrealistic production that made Pulp’s sound glitter and pop in their later years. This Is Hardcore was the introduction of this new hyperreal Pulp; “Help the Aged” is the introduction to this sound here. Though overall, This Is Hardcore was a somewhat surprising sonic departure for the band — much more by way of fuzzy guitars and overexposed keyboards, clever effrontery descending into self-destructive belligerence — the tracks on this compilation fall into place quite nicely. Still, sticking out like a hitchhiker’s thumb — or perhaps some other, naughtier part — is “This Is Hardcore”, the closest Pulp have ever gotten to soundtracking porn.
If anything sounds amiss on this compilation, it’s the ending material from the kinder, gentler Pulp of We Love Life. Especially after the zeal of “Party Hard”, “Trees” is an innocent and somewhat peculiar downer. It’s a very pretty song, but demonstrates brazenly how much the band changed at the turn of the millennium. That, along with “Bad Cover Version” and “Sunrise”, sounds almost like the sad aftermath to an especially raucous revelry, like the morning after where somebody wakes up dead.
Pulp are still here in this clean and sober territory today, it seems, as new song “Last Day of the Miner’s Strike”, demonstrates. The song is a low and determined soulful dirge, full of a mix of resignation and resolve. It’s the story of people who tried to change things, and instead were changed — or perhaps, the world changed faster than their circumstances could. Cocker ends the song with triumphant singing, though it’s unclear if the battles exactly been won.
In some ways, maybe this song is an allegory for Pulp themselves. Pulp are a band that have grown from the tiniest whisper into the mightiest legend, a story that has changed dramatically over time, a tale whose appropriateness waxes and wanes dependent on context and conditions. They have both initiated trends and bucked them; been the most powerful and bombastic as well as the quietest and most demure. But overall, they have been an awesome, fearless, tragic, and utterly lovely site to behold. Pulp have a greatest hits record. And it’s about goddamned time.