The last time Pulp kicked out an album, it wouldn't be unfair to say that they were almost off the mainstream's radar altogether. This is nuts when you consider that just over five years before that the band were a bona fide pop behemoth in their own right, and their albums were cultural events. They were one of the brightest jewels in Britpop's crown, and perhaps the only band that the NME and_ Q and Select (God, remember Select?) and _Vox (God! Remember_ Vox!?) could agree on. In the summer of 1995, Pulp were the band that managed to unite a country divided by Oasis and Blur with an album hot off the back of triumphant Glastonbury performance. Fast-forward six years and their dwindling, yet increasingly hardcore fan-base was listening to _We Love Life, while the public at large bought tickets to see Britney.
Since Jarvis Cocker has taken to swearing (albeit musically) at politicians on MySpace, and the rest of his band are AWOL, it’s pretty much a given that Pulp are, for the time being at least, no more. Nonetheless, ten years on from a time when Cocker & Co were chart contenders, Island has seen fit to release three discs from the band's back catalogue in deluxe format. Fittingly the trio in question are probably the best known of Pulp's albums, from their most solid creative run: the break-out buzz-grabbing His 'N Hers (review), the king-making Different Class (review), and the epic slow-dive, This Is Hardcore.
Jarvis Cocker's greatest strength as a lyricist was his unblinking honesty. While many of his contemporaries tended to remain giddily buoyant (Supergrass, Oasis), or romanticise the darker stuff (top offender here was Suede's Brett Anderson), Cocker came on like the bastard son of Bryan Ferry and Morrissey. He also realised full well that while roughly half of his audience's life was made up of euphoric good-times, bullet-proof romances and unbridled fun, the rest of it consisted of worrying over facial blemishes, hellish insecurities, ritual humiliation, and occasionally getting a smack in the mouth from complete strangers, simply because they’re bigger and simply because they can. This is why the best of Pulp's work endures; Cocker never lied to his audience or tried to convince them life was rosier or more rubbish than it actually is. The fact that he had a keen eye for detail, and a fantastic turn of phrase, didn't hurt either.
It's also why their penultimate release of new material, This Is Hardcore, proved to be a commercial disappointment. It’s easy to see why with hindsight: Cocker had always been a pretty downcast and cynical commentator before, but the mindset of the two albums that precede This Is Hardcore sound like he's blissfully frolicking in a sun-dappled meadow by comparison to his work here. Opening with horror-show synths and gaunt guitar lines, 'The Fear' sets the tone of what’s to follow early on: "This is the sound of someone losing the plot," Cocker intones, "making out that they're okay when they're not. You're going to like it - but not a lot". After an announcement like that, fans may have expected an even darker look into the life of teenage misadventure, but Cocker had something far more terrifying in store for them: the onset of middle-age.
Given that pop music and youthful exuberance usually go hand in hand, This Is Hardcore was a particularly bold move for Pulp, especially when you consider how much they stood to gain monetarily from repeating the winning formula of the two albums before it. In the long run, it seems to have paid off, as This Is Hardcore stands up eight or so years later as not only one of Pulp's stronger releases, but a powerful album on its own terms.
Lyrically and thematically, This Is Hardcore finds Cocker at his darkest - at the time, he was battling quite a few personal demons, and he was tabloid fodder. It's not hard to read This Is Hardcore as the sound of Cocker staring bitterly at the last few grains of youth as they slip through his fingers; a rock-star in the midst of a mid-life meltdown, sneering at people his age trying to hang onto their adolescence ('Party Hard'), resigned to becoming domesticated ('Dishes'), and wondering what life has in store for him when his hair falls out ('Help The Aged'). The music follows suit, building on the lush, pop template of Different Class, but adding darker and more ominous textures - particularly on the echoey, shuffling 'Seductive Barry', and the title track, which sounds ready-made to score a dozen noir-films. Even the lighter numbers, like 'I'm A Man' and 'Help The Aged', sound awash with dew-eyed melancholy and gloom.
Of course, for the fans, the bonus disc will be the reason to revisit this jaded slice of home-wreckage; the bells and whistles on This Is Hardcore's Deluxe Edition are more rewarding than the other two releases. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to say there are cuts on the second, bonus disc that tower over some of the material on the album proper. The first two examples kick the disc off: the cynical barnburner 'Cocaine Socialism' and the synth head-banger 'It's A Dirty World'. They're easily two of the strongest songs Pulp ever recorded, and until now they weren't available. The rest of the unreleased material maintains a relatively high pedigree - standouts being 'Tomorrow Never Dies' (the band's rejected Bond film song) and the fantastic 'Street Operator'.
All told, Pulp's three deluxe discs sidestep the usual criticisms connected to re-releases (that they're aimed towards milking as much cash as possible from fans) and reward the faithful just as much as any newcomer to the group. The three discs are also cause for reflection that while Mike Skinner may be be the latest insightful guide into teenage wildlife, Pulp got there first; they're also a timely reminder of the large gaping void the band has left since they departed.
9Nick Cowen's Score