Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A Short Review of Pulp

Pulp were around for roughly thirteen years before finally breaking through. It's been roughly thirteen years since they broke through. Amazing how time flies. I mean shit, "Disco 2000" was about making plans for the year 2000 -- which always seemed to be a million years in the future -- and more time has elapsed between 2000 and today than between that song being recorded and the year 2000.

The first Pulp album I heard was "His N Hers", and in the beginning, it felt like pure cabaret. Tales of street thugs, illicit/disallowed affairs and pervy/desperate longing gave me visions of a 1994 version of West Side Story. I wasn't sure what to make of such theatrical storytelling. At first, it was a distraction that prevented me from getting into the music, but eventually I found it to be the most alluring thing about Pulp. Eventually I could almost picture the choreography while listening to the album. The stakes were raised with "Different Class" because the band were finally making an album that they knew, or expected, could be a big hit. Everything sounded bigger, brasher, livelier. Nothing on "His N Hers" exploded from the speakers like "Underwear" or "Common People" did. Ed Buller's more lo-fi production was fantastic, but likely not suitable for a pop breakthrough record. It was as if Trevor Horn had dropped in to push Pulp's sound over the edge, but in fact the man behind the console was Chris Thomas, who had produced Roxy Music, Sex Pistols, and Elton John among a host of others.

"Different Class" was also cabaret in its sound, but not as much in its subject matter. It's extremely glossy. Thomas also produced the follow-up, "This Is Hardcore", which is a much more sombre record but now sounds a bit too glossy to my ears. I peaked with this album around 1999-2000 and barely held back from calling it the best Pulp record ever. Now I'm glad I restrained myself because this album deserved to sound more maudlin. If the same band had made this album in 2001 or 1986, it probably would have. But not in 1998, coming off the heels of worldwide success. It's also worth remembering that Jarvis Cocker was one of Britain's biggest tabloid stars of the mid-90's, both in music mags and general celebrity mags. I tried to keep up with what he was doing from across the ocean. By 1998, the guy whose lifelong dream was to become a pop star had burned himself out on drugs and partying. Now all he wanted to do was stay at home and do the dishes (or so he claimed on "Dishes"). Coming straight off the heels of a whirlwind four years of fame, that was a very poignant reprioritization of his life's goals. Eight years later, now that he has dutifully worked hard to remove himself almost completely from the public eye, the "beware the price of fame" message of "This Is Hardcore" feels distant and quaint. I could never understand why bands would bother with those kinds of albums because the last thing we ordinary people want to hear is un-ordinary people complaining about their sensationally un-ordinary lives. I used to think that "This Is Hardcore" had avoided that trap, but now, I'm not as sure.

"Freaks", despite having distinct hot and cold patches (Verve release, hello) has always been a pet favourite album of mine. To this day, it's probably the only Pulp album that I listen to even if I'm not specifically in the mood to listen to Pulp (does that make sense? Perhaps not). Famously recorded for about 600 pounds, this is the dingy, sloppy, unsettling, and frequently spooky album that "This Is Hardcore" should have been. In sound, that is. Essentially, "Freaks" wouldn't be a great album if it had been recorded for 60K pounds instead of 600, and "This Is Hardcore" could have benefited from a 10X reduction in recording expenses. Pulp were clinging to goth aspirations (Jarvis' voice carries a remarkable resemblance to Peter Murphy's in 1985-6), as shown on their fascination for gruesome imagery ("Fairground", "Anorexic Beauty") and stalker epics ("Being Followed Home"). At the same time, they flirted with wistful pop and sincere romanticism ("Don't You Know", "Life Could Be So Wonderful"), holding true to the the album's somewhat schizophrenic mission statement/subtitle ("Ten Stories About Power, Claustrophobia, Suffocation and Holding Hands"). "I Want You" examines the transition from ordinary obsessions to sick obsessions (if I can't have you then nobody will, etc.) and as great as it is, it pales next to the twisted bluster of sugar daddy/statutory rape/sex slave fantasy "Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)". Released as a non-album single the previous year, it manages to be both chilling and catchy at the same time, and is probably the finest Pulp song of the 1980's.

As a band, Pulp evolved tangentially to Britpop (if that) -- Britpop would have happened with or without "Different Class". In that sense, it's not so surprising that it has aged better than any other peak-period Britpop album. With its recurring themes of class warfare, Pulp gave a new context to their tales of awkward teenage crushes and extramarital affairs. Most of "Different Class" retains that cabaret feel, and in conjunction with its aforementioned glossiness, it's easy to mistake it for an album filled with nothing but chartbusting fun and games. With hindsight, tracks like "Misshapes" and "Sorted For E's and Wizz" can appear overly showy, even comical. But more than ten years on, "Common People" stands out as the most determined and passionate track on the record. Sure, everything else on the record could be sly, pervy, and theatrical, but this was the time to get serious. And it gets better -- "Disco 2000" was the superior single back then and remains so today, featuring the best use of repeated "baby"s in the history of song and a desperately sung final choral coda that makes me unsure of whether to scream along or get teary-eyed instead. And in a decade characterized by alternative/grunge and filled with bitter or ironic love songs, "Something Changed" was completely genuine. Whitney Houston and Bryan Adams proclaimed their chart-topping love through hyperbole and screaming. Pulp told a simple story about the basic beauty of fate and ended up with one of the best love songs of the 90's. Moreso than any other song in Pulp's career, it requires absolutely no context. Hit album, comeback album, struggling indie band album, band members in love, out of love, none of it matters here. Long after the musical and political context of "Different Class" has been forgotten, playing "Something Changed" should remain compulsory at every wedding reception.

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