Pulp - This Is Hardcore - Review
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critics' view

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.

Nick Cowen
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Drowned in Sound, sometimes abbreviated to DiS, is a UK-based music webzine financed by artist management company Silentway. Founded by editor Sean Adams, the site features reviews, news, interviews, and discussion forums.
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