Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Number Seven: Pulp's This is Hardcore (1998)

This is Hardcore was one of those great art surprises. I read about it in Spin, Rolling Stone, and maybe on Pitchforkmedia.com (although if I did it wouldn't have helped much; the review is in the form of a fake consumer analysis). At least half the albums I buy based upon reading articles turn out to be disappointments. Some of them are only slight disappointments that grow on me over time. Others are crap from the start. My exposure to Britpop before this was limited to Oasis and Blur singles on Fresno's New Rock 104. Maybe this is why I never cared much for Blur. Or maybe Pulp is simply the better band. I'll leave that discussion to the comments.

So what makes This is Hardcore great? Let's start with the obvious - the songs are great. Jarvis Cocker mixes the R&B groove that's sadly missing from 99% of R&B today with great sing-along choruses that are sadly missing from 99% of rock today. Some Nigel Godrichean bells and whistles are thrown in, but they never overwhelm the melodies. If you're familiar with David Bowie, imagine if Brian Eno had produced Let's Dance. Think of it as artsy music you can dance to. "Glory Days" mixes buzzing pop-punk guitars with nostalgia worthy of Springsteen. "Dishes", "Help the Aged", and "A Little Soul" slow the tempo and break up the crimson-tinged clouds of doom hanging over "The Fear", "This Is Hardcore", and "Seductive Barry". This album has a reputation as the bleak nadir in Pulp's oeuvre but it really only fits that bill in few songs. Rather than feeling inconsistent, these shifts in tone lend a narrative drive to the album that justifies its 70 minute running time and keeps me coming back on those days when a quick bit of indie rock wit or jazzy pleasantness just won't do the trick.

Another thing This is Hardcore has going for it is singer Jarvis Cocker himself. His voice is low and smooth. His lyrics are full of references to sex and drugs but they still manage to be endearing because they seem so honest. When he sings, "I did what was wrong though I knew what was right/I've got no wisdom that I want to pass on" a little shiver runs up my spine. Like a noir private eye pointing out the corruption of a system he remains a part of, his admission and even just his ability to see the world for what it is, distinguishes him from the bad guys.

I can't write about this album without also mentioning the cover art. I think it's one of the best album covers of all time. The artist, John Currin, does a lot of odd looking nudes. Seen from afar the picture looks like standard pornography. But as you get closer it looks less and less arousing until you pick up the CD and notice the brush strokes. Is this art? Is this sex? Both, and neither. This is hardcore.

I'll end this with a quote from the last song on the album, "The Day After the Revolution": "Why did it seem so difficult to realise a simple truth?/The revolution begins and ends with you/Now all the breakdowns and nightmares look small/Now we decided not to die after all." I've heard it said that no one makes big social statements in pop music anymore. Well, Pulp did - you just weren't paying attention.


Little Earl said...

Number 7? Number 7 of what? Ohhhhh...wait...now it's coming back to me.

Now, take a deep breath, I hope you don't break a small animal's neck when I say this, I think your enthusiasm for this album is entirely justified, but This Is Hardcore might actually be my third favorite Pulp album. Who can say why. I think the songs on the previous Pulp albums are just a little bit catchier. Ultimately catchiness is in the ear of the CD holder of course. Still, "The Fear," "Help The Aged" and "I'm A Man" give me the spine-tinglies every time.

That quote from "A Little Soul": isn't that from the point of view of some guy's father, not Jarvis himself?

yoggoth said...

What is this, freshman English? Yes I know I was imputing the character's views to Jarvis, but given his public persona it didn't seem like such a stretch. Maybe Shakespeare was just writing all those sonnets to his dog...