When we talked last week about fIREHOSE playing Coachella, there were a number of other newly or recently reunited bands on the same bill, including Pulp. They've been back playing festivals for a bit now, but seeing them on the Coachella bill got me thinking about a time when they almost imploded, the time right around the release of the uneven yet strangely triumphant This is Hardcore.
The album, released in 1998, came on the heels of the band's biggest success, 1995's Different Class, and marked a tumultuous time for the band. They had been together since 1978, and released three records before 1994's His 'N Hers got them some real attention. Different Class followed and blew up on the strength of singles like "Common People." And then things went wrong. Russell Senior left the band and Jarvis Cocker got himself caught up in that oh-so-ubiquitous trammel of fame: drugs. As he struggled with cocaine addiction and the band struggled to move on without Senior, they stumbled making This is Hardcore.
When the record was finally finished, the band presented us with an enigmatic record to say the least. It is one of many great anti-fame records, though it is not only that. It is, in some ways, another turn in Cocker's distanced (but biting) irony, but it also lays some true worry bare. It rails against excesses of sex and drugs and fame, and yet itself sounds indulgent to the nth degree, sometimes even overwrought.
Take the one-two punch of "The Fear" and "Dishes" that opens the record. Cocker grapples with addiction and self-doubt here, but its a mix of prankster's performance and humble confession. "And the chorus goes like this", he mumbles, letting us know he knows exactly what he's doing, that the message is under control, that this is a basic -- even boring -- complaint, the same old sad song. Of course, then when he belts out the chorus you feel every bit of that towering anxiety come crashing down, even if his examples of doubt ("You can't get anyone to come in the sack") are too juvenile for their own good. The song, despite its shrugging moments, still gets at something much closer to home than we ever heard on Different Class.
"Dishes" is a harder sell on the earnestness front. "I'm not Jesus, though I have the same initials," he whispers at the songs start, insisting that he merely "stays home and does the dishes." There's something of the early-30s worry that people go through in the song, but the song poses domesticity as a joke more than anything, as an absurd alternative to even more absurd desires for yourself. This is much closer to the Pulp we know, and if its a brilliant song, it's also a retreat.
The album goes back and forth in this way: it reveals only to conceal, it hits us with the truth only to distract us with a joke. "Help the Aged" has that great chorus, where guitars crunch with a youthful bite as Cocker insists we "try to forget that nothing lasts forever." But this is less an examination of the foolishness of youth than Cocker sneering in his charming way, mocking the kids with a shrugged off "no big deal." This is Hardcore swings between these different poles mostly by using inappropriate tones and moods. The title track, about (no shock here) pornography and obsession, doesn't sound "hardcore" at all. It's not exposed or brazen; it's lush and intricate, carefully planned and executed. Therefore, the song can dig into the very real without ever sounding too real itself. In keeping its distance, this time around Pulp often got us closer to their big ideas, even if those closer looks were fleeting.
Their indictment of fame and delusion is best heard on "Glory Days." The lush layers of the record yield to a cutting guitar, and Cocker deals out some of his most hilarious and acerbic lines on the record. "My face is unappealing and my thoughts are unoriginal," he sighs, and then "I used to do the I Ching but then I had to feel the meter." The song is equal parts self-doubt and pretension, and these lead to a moment where he assures us he'll "never sell this moment to anyone but you."
The song is brilliant because it presents itself as insipid despite a tight structure and intelligent lyrical turns, and it also hits us with the catchiest hook on the record. It's contained sound also works against the slogging mock-epic feel of "Seductive Barry" and the generally overbuilt sound of the record. If it wants to rail against excess, it doesn't at all want to separate itself from it.
To hear "Glory Days" is to hear the rest of the album, in stark comparison, as an exercise in finely crafted and deliberate bloat. This is Hardcore revels in all the things it sends up, and if its mocks, it mocks to strip away artifice and find something true. Pulp was never more confessional than it was on This is Hardcore, and yet this is no full disclosure. Cocker, ever the murcurial figure, keeps enough behind the curtain to keep you wondering, and yet his brilliance comes in rending emotion out of these absurdities. If Different Class was their finest moment, This is Hardcore is their most fascinating. Rarely does taking a piss end up being this honest. Because this is honest, right?
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