Pulp‘s We Love Life, released 20 years ago, is the sound of a highly successful British band reinventing themselves for the final time, with songs not so much about sex, voyeurism, and personal disintegration as rivers, birds, trees, and sunrises. In the grand tradition of the Beatles on Abbey Road, it’s the sound of a group drawing a line under a period of interpersonal tension to bow out with an ambitious, focused, and warm album that genuinely justifies their existence as a creative unit. It’s further the sound of a band going deeper into the realm of folk than any of their Britpop contemporaries ever did. However, this isn’t to say it’s a work of pastoral folk that idealizes nature (nobody’s saying that!). Rather, it’s an album that twists folk elements into shapes that are wonderfully strange and surprisingly beautiful.
Pulp forged their brave new sound on We Love Life, their seventh LP, with the unlikely aid of reclusive singing legend Scott Walker as producer. That was after abandoning sessions with Chris Thomas, the producer of their previous two records, Different Class and This Is Hardcore. Yet, having taken those two titles to number one in the UK Album Chart, the Sheffield group soon found it wasn’t the kind of sound to win them new fans. They only managed a fleeting peak position of number six for We Love Life at the end of October 2001.
Pulp also failed to score any significant hit singles off the album to compare with “Common People”, “Disco 2000”, and “Help the Aged”. Double A-side “The Trees”/”Sunrise” stalled at 23 in the UK Top 40, and “Bad Cover Version” limped to 27. They received no Mercury Prize nomination this time, either. Nor did they see the record, like its two predecessors, go on to acquire canonical status within 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, and NME’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, nor, like Different Class alone, Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (at #162).
In terms of both its popular reception and legacy, then, We Love Life has to contend with the fact that it doesn’t constitute the “classic” Pulp sound. The album instead sees the band embracing traditional instruments, in a folk kind of way, while dumping the synthesizers they so brilliantly used to color the seedy and wittily observed songs about socially marginalized urban life on Different Class and, more introspectively, This Is Hardcore. Pulp are more about acoustic guitars, strings, and organic expression here, as they address broader themes that connect, in one way or another, with nature. And with the letters’ PULP’ ornamented in images of rich vegetation on the Peter Saville-designed sleeve, it’s all too much of a departure for many, leaving the album underrated and largely uncelebrated.
However, Pulp’s We Love Life demands reappraisal in view of its natural and raw sound, which aligns with folk music in the way it illuminates instances of folklore, superstition, working-class solidarity, and oral narrative tradition, with a side helping of tree personification and weed metaphor. For one thing, it has a timeless quality that means it isn’t tied to 2001 like Different Class, with its synth-heavy hooks and pop sheen, tied to 1995 and the whole Britpop maelstrom of Blur, Elastica, Sleeper, and the rest. More than this, it ensures the 11 featured tracks hit harder on an emotional level, with the epic “Wickerman” at its heart, providing untold poignancy and majesty. Sure, the record may lack defining moments, but the songs instead have the dramatic unity and cumulative power of a concept album, with none being skippable in the way they are – let’s be honest – on This is Hardcore (a tuneless title track here, a lackluster Bowie pastiche there).
“The Trees”, the first track off We Love Life to have received significant airplay, announces Pulp’s captivating take on folk music. The portentous opening focused on a pulsating string sample from Stanley Myers’ and Hal Shaper’s “Tell Her You Love Her” from 1968, warns us there will be no funny business here. Cocker then comes in with his mournful baritone to say he’s “shot a magpie to the ground”. Meanwhile, Walker proceeds to give this stately tune the epic-pop-single treatment as a reminder of his teen-idol days performing “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and “No Regrets”. He builds a big acoustic sound, indeed, while the Pulp singer references the folklore inherent in the “one for sorrow, two for joy” nursery rhyme dating back to the 18th century, where the sight of a single magpie is considered an ill omen.
It’s enthralling to see Cocker enter into this creepy folk territory on “The Trees”, as a first-person narrator who laments the indifference of nature towards his apparent heartbreak and suffering. His encounter with a lone magpie spells sorrow in its association with witchcraft, traditionally requiring him to perform superstitious rituals (particularly pertinent to Yorkshire) to ward off bad luck. He refrains, however, from making the sign of the cross and saying, “Hello, Mr. Magpie. How is Mrs. Magpie and all the little magpies?” He’s more concerned with letting rip on his air rifle and demonstrating a violent disdain for the natural, or supernatural, world.
It’s also a rare treat to find Cocker touching on the folk tradition of murder balladry on “The Trees”, which takes him as far from singing about the girl from Greece who had a thirst for knowledge as it’s possible to get. It’s there in his gothic language as he describes being alone with his lover in the woods. “Your skin so pale against the fallen Autumn leaves / And no-one saw us but the trees.” It’s there, too, in the way he leaves you wondering: Is his lover actually dead in this seasonal time of dying? Is something sinister going on? Is the pale-skinned one an Elisa Day type? The wild rose? And shouldn’t Nick Cave be singing this?
In any case, there’s little doubt that we discover a version of Pulp on “The Trees” that’s aware of pastoral folk music yet eager to subvert the idyllic notions of nature that define it. There’s nothing idyllic about the same trees that once bore witness to a man’s happiness now being utterly oblivious to his despair in the face of lost love. “The trees, those useless trees / Produce the air that I am breathing,” sings Jarvis, more earnestly than ever before. “The trees, those useless trees / They never said that you were leaving.” The band, however, create something direct, heartfelt, and beautiful out of this ambivalence towards nature, and it’s undoubtedly why bassist Steve Mackey said the song “encapsulates” We Love Life.
Pulp bring the same ambivalence to “Sunrise” while incredibly creating an uplifting epic of a track with not one but two crescendos. They begin in raw guitar-drums-and-vocal mode as if converts to the unwritten rule of folk music that an unpolished live sound is synonymous with honesty and pure emotion. This is while Cocker brings up the subject of the earth’s life-giving star as a negative fixture in his life. “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.” He expresses no hippy kind of reverence for the rising sun, therefore, instead bringing hope to the song by emphasizing the power of the individual to shake off apathy. “Yeah, here’s your sunrise,” he offers, before unusually stepping aside to let guitarist Mark Webber, drummer Nick Banks and the Metro Voices choir really drive the point home.
It’s with this same realistic, unromanticized approach to nature that Cocker reinvents himself as a northern England folk hero on We Love Life opener “Weeds”. With such a track, he needn’t have worried about the album sounding “like the work of somebody who’s on Prozac”, as he did at the time of its release. This is because it’s a hard-hitting thing, driven by snare drums and visceral guitar playing, on which weeds represent immigrants to the UK who’ve ended up in “some holding camp somewhere outside Leeds”. His affinity with the downtrodden echelons of society here, as on “Common People”, is furthermore an affinity with the folk music of Woody Guthrie and early Dylan. In this case, though, he expresses it in Darwinian terms focused on the ability of refugees to survive in the most hostile environments. “We are weeds, vegetation, dense undergrowth / Through cracks in the pavement / The weeds will grow.”
This whole intriguing kinship between Pulp and folk music on We Love Life, though, reaches its apotheosis on the mesmerizing “Wickerman”. It’s jokingly titled after the 1973 British horror-folk movie The Wicker Man and incorporates a sample from “Willow’s Song” on its sinister folk soundtrack. But in essence, it’s an inspired eight-minute piece concerning Cocker’s emotional connection to the place he grew up, “just off the Wicker”, the Wicker being a dirty arterial part of industrial Sheffield upon the River Don. The singer delivers one of his trademark monologues to summon up scenes from his youth: of exploring the concrete channels and tunnels of the Don, of meeting girls at cafes, of gazing at the sludgy water, and of glimpsing the moon through utility hole covers. He does it with an ever-present folk sensibility, too, always cognizant of the ordinary, working-class people who live in the area, their language and traditions, his place among them, and the orally transmitted stories that help define them.
Cocker begins one section of the meandering “Wickerman”: “A passer-by told us that it used to be a local custom to jump off the viaduct into the river when coming home from the pub on a Saturday night.” And it’s in just such a way that he illustrates the importance of the river and the Wicker community in shaping his imagination and inner being. It’s kind of like an urbanite version of Wordsworth’s “The Prelude”, marked by stunningly effective strings under Walker’s incomparable direction and with a band sensitive to the twists and turns of his freeform narrative. These elements all lead to a point where Cocker talks of unfinished business in the Wicker, where it also becomes evident that Pulp have never recorded a song as moving and evocative as this. “Tonight, I am thinking about making my way back. I may find you there and float on, wherever the river may take me. Wherever the river may take us. Wherever it wants us to go.”
Further intimations of folk music and nature hit the mark, in less epic fashion, on We Love Life. “Birds in Your Garden” builds prettily from a fragile opening of acoustic guitar and flute and features Jarvis singing sweetly of birds in the surprising context of a guy’s libido. “Roadkill”, on the other hand, is dark, edgy, and eerie in its rough and minimalist state, the result of non-virtuoso Cocker laying down live guitar and vocal in the studio. It’s also the result of the singer bringing up the unsettling subject matter of animal-related omen again by describing a chilling circumstance of seeing a deer dying in the road as he drives to the airport. “Maybe I should have seen it as some kind of sign,” he wonders in connection to the dying relationship he finds himself in, “‘cept I don’t believe in them no more”.
“I Love Life”, “Bad Cover Version”, and “The Night That Minnie Timperley Died” dispense with such folkloric and birdy reference points, being cut from slightly different cloth. But they’re brilliant, and they continue to showcase a more unrefined and often more grandiose Pulp than on previous albums. They’re also refreshingly absent of pervy Cocker (a role that ran its course), with the singer instead embracing ambitious new lyrical challenges. Who could have foreseen a song about the murder of a teenage girl after she leaves a party?
Pulp’s We Love Life, then, finds Pulp in brilliantly conceived, folk-flirting new territory, with the band in perfect unison with the legend that was Scott Walker. Its legacy perhaps rests most with “Sunrise”, which, after being vainly sought by Coca-Cola for a commercial, became a rousing live favorite and then a mainstay of TV sports montages. “The Trees” and “Birds in Your Garden” are evergreen radio staples, while the lyrics to “Wickerman” are honored by having been featured in a Geography A-level paper in the UK in 2019. That is fine, but the album deserves more. A lot more. It’s time we started thinking about making our way back.