Pulp proves that old saw about perseverance. It took ages, but singer/auteur Jarvis Cocker grew to become a star, recognized as British pop’s most astonishing storyteller and acerbic social commentator, beloved by those with a taste for wit, fashion and panache. But in Pulp’s earliest incarnation, it sounds as if Cocker’s goal was to be the Edwyn Collins of Sheffield. The eight-song ‘It.’ mini-album is sparse indie rock-folk, all wispy melodies and wimpy vocals, with “My Lighthouse” (co-written with Simon Hinkler, later of the Mission, and reprised from Pulp’s 7-inch debut), being the best.
‘Freaks’ finds Cocker beginning to compose his tales of power, claustrophobia, suffocation and holding hands, as the LP’s subtitle puts it. The band indulges in Bad Seeds-like cabaret and angular keyboard-based pop, but Cocker’s lyrical genius and musical ambition are as yet unformed.
The long-term lineup — bassist Steve Mackey, guitarist/violinist Russell Senior, keyboardist Candida Doyle and drummer Nick Banks — coalesced in 1988 and made its debut on Separations, which was released four years later. Though there are moments (like “My Legendary Girlfriend”) that hint at the Pulp to come, Separations is still mediocre.
Just as Separations was finally hitting the shops, Pulp reinvented itself with the three Gift label singles later collected on PulpIntro. The cultish tweepop gave way to a futuristic torchy theatricality, with Cocker’s deft touch for moving — and often perverse — lyrical reminiscence providing a seductive poignancy and charm. For the soundtrack to Cocker’s plangent narratives, Pulp began concocting a piss-elegant mélange of glam, indie, electro-pop and ’70s dance music, alive with sleazy glitter synths and pomp romanticism. Lyrically, Cocker had at last found his voice, exposing himself in such confessional scenarios of hometown Sheffield (proclaimed here “Sex City”) as “Razzmatazz” and “Babies,” a startling and irresistible musical short story that tells of how young Jarvis developed his voyeuristic tendencies by peeping his best (girl) friend’s older sister in the act.
The bottled-up sexuality that is such a distinct part of the British personality is the theme of His ‘n’ Hers. Cocker’s cracked-actor croon, fraught with appropriately timed hard breaths and deep sighs, gives life to brutally frank bedsit melodramas in which Our Jarvis peers through suburban blinds and screen doors. There he witnesses England’s middle class at desperate play, with illicit teatime trysts (“Acrylic Afternoons”) and wretched attempts at erotic restoration (“Pink Glove”). Along with the now-trademark stylized Stylophone symphonics, the Ed Buller-produced album is awash in terrific guitar-twinkling pop ditties (“Lipgloss” and “Do You Remember the First Time?”) and strictly-ballroom disco operettas (“She’s a Lady,” which plucks a hook from Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”). “Babies” is also included, while “Razzmatazz” appears as an unlisted bonus track. A wonderful record.
With the Britpop explosion beginning to bloom, Pulp gave “Babies” another go at chart success with the four-song The Sisters EP, which also includes “Your Sister’s Clothes” (the sisters from “Babies” four years on). Like most sequels, it fails to recapture the delightfulness of the original. The EP’s high point is the splendid “His ‘n’ Hers,” a surprising omission from the album of that name. Fire Records capitalized on Pulp’s growing success with Masters of the Universe, a compilation of the band’s post-‘It.’, pre-‘Freaks’ singles. With the exception of the spooky “Dogs Are Everywhere,” most of the material is pretty weak. Not the same Pulp that folks were coming to love.
In 1996, after a decade-and-a-half’s existence, Pulp had its British breakthrough with “Common People,” a stunningly catchy, masterfully sardonic paean to upper-class slumming that made Cocker, at 33, one of the most popular voices of Britain’s teenybop generation. In addition, the Chris Thomas-produced Different Class boasts a fistful of classic (in the UK, at least) singles: the freaks’ call to arms of “Mis-Shapes,” the wistful bubblegum folk ditty “Something Changed,” and the magnificent “Disco 2000,” which pilfers another dancefloor anthem, this time the guitar riff from Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.” Throughout the record, Cocker points his poison lens and impeccably dissects class warfare and sexual politics through snapshots of beautifully drawn characters, both real and imagined. There are superlative swoony ballads (“Underwear,” “Live Bed Show”), snatches of ska (“Monday Morning”) and jungle (“F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.”). “Sorted for E’s & Wizz” chronicles Cocker’s lost weekend at a late-’80s rave, nailing that disconcerting sense of loneliness that can occur when you’re out of your head among 20,000 people: “This hollow feeling grows and grows and grows and grows / And you want to phone your mother and say / Mother, I can never come home again / ‘Cause I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere/Somewhere in a field in Hampshire / Alright.” (Simply Fuss Free is a boxed set of six CD singles from Different Class.)
Following the stunning success of Different Class, Cocker was ill-equipped to handle the fame and glory he had long sought. Rather than enjoy the luxury of rock stardom, Cocker suffered a nervous breakdown, which he sang about on This Is Hardcore, a wonderfully uncomfortable journey through the singer’s neuroses. Pulp swaps glitzy ’70s disco for a variety of slower-tempo dark moods (sleazy lounge, coked-out glam, ironic soul) that lurk beneath the vocalist’s confessionals. Everything costs Cocker far too much here: drugs and club-hopping (“Party Hard”), domesticity (“Dishes”), crippling insecurity (“The Fear”) and the years (in “Help the Aged,” he opines, “They were just like you, drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue”). The disc’s later anthems (“Glory Days,” “The Day After the Revolution”) are consciously anti-climactic, serving as metaphors for the promises and failures of New Britain. More striking than the political commentary is Cocker’s own self-disgust; he casts himself as a neglectful dad on “A Little Soul” (its melody lifted from “Tracks of My Tears”), while “Like a Friend” compares infidelity to other humiliations: “You are the last drink I never should have drunk / You are the girl that makes me hide my face / You are the party that makes me feel me age.” Best of all is the fantastic title track, which employs a horn sample from Peter Thomas’ “Bolero on the Moon Rocks.” The stomping masterpiece takes Cocker’s now-liberated sexual obsessions to their nadir: simulated pornography. Sick, ambitious and absolutely without any care of commercial success, This Is Hardcore is Pulp at its most fearless.
After that catharsis, Pulp relaxed a bit with We Love Life, a musical and lyrical throwback. Returning to the ’70s for inspiration, this time borrowing from British psychedelic pop, Pulp still manages to push the envelope with Genesis-style prog (the confessional, spoken-word “Wickerman”) to drugged-out buzz (“Weeds II”, dominated by Doyle’s twinkly keyboards). A more accessible album than This Is Hardcore (complete with acoustic guitars and a vaguely pastoral concept), We Love Life revisits the class warfare of “Common People” with “Weeds” and “Weeds II,” which, respectively, compare upper class contempt of workers to plants that are stepped on (and yet persevere) and the cultivation of the working class for drugs and sex to be “passed around at dinner parties.” The vocalist is still morbidly obsessed by sex, comparing a lover to roadkill and her new man as a “bad cover version” of himself, while even the wildlife outside his girlfriend’s window mocks his sexual inadequacy (“The Birds in Your Garden”). But funny lines like “I might as well go tell it to the trees” also show the self-awareness that makes Cocker such an engaging lyricist. While “The Night That Minnie Timperley Died” is a bit of a dud, the album contains plenty of great music, including the title track (which veers from angular folk into a Sonic Youth-like freakout), the great “Bob Lind” (featuring a bouncy jangle and deadpan vocal that might have fit on the Smiths’ debut), the showtune-ish “Bad Cover Version” and the atmospheric, joyous “Sunrise.” Even the more upbeat songs feature unsettling backgrounds; Cocker finds enough dead bodies in his imaginary forests to make him yearn for the sticky pub floors once again.
The two-disc Countdown compilation was dumped onto an unsuspecting public (without the band’s approval) after Different Class catapulted Cocker and the band into the limelight. The set collects the best of Pulp’s dodgy years, and therefore is not really very good at all. On the other hand, Hits collects the important songs from Pulp’s four important albums (starting with His ‘n’ Hers.), making it one of the most essential and compulsively listenable compilations of Britpop available. Only the omission of “Mis-Shapes” and “Bob Lind” keep the collection from perfection. Pulp subsequently went on an indefinite hiatus, but Cocker continues to emerge for the odd collaboration or DJ gig. He also makes an appearance in Eve Wood’s 2005 scene documentary Made in Sheffield.