Thursday, October 16, 2008

4. Pulp's Different Class (1995)

For me, Pulp were Britpop's secret surprise.

I was initially under the impression that Pulp were maybe the sixth or seventh most worthwhile Britpop band. According to the All Music Guide at least, it seemed like Blur and Oasis were at the top, and then next came Suede, and then there was Elastica, and then maybe Supergrass, and then Pulp were somewhere down around the fringes with the Manic Street Preachers and Ocean Colour Scene. So when I borrowed Different Class from a friend back in my freshman year of college, my expectations were not too high. But I put the CD in, and let me tell you something. It was pop music love at first sight. Maybe I'm just a sucker for the perfect pop nugget, but Different Class was like perfect pop nugget nirvana. 'Wait, who are these guys again?" I remember asking myself with a mixture of puzzlement and enthusiasm. Since I hadn't expected too much from Pulp, and since I hadn't really heard all those other Britpop bands, I began thinking that maybe Britpop was the world's greatest genre and that I needed to get my hands on every Echobelly and Lightning Seeds album I could find. After having listened to Echobelly and Supergrass and the Manic Street Preachers, et al., I've realized that I had it slightly backwards. It's not that Pulp were a second-tier Britpop band and that Britpop was ridiculously amazing; it's that Pulp were actually a first-tier Britpop band and that my old copy of the All Music Guide hadn't given them enough credit.

I've heard it said that if Blur were the Father and Oasis the Son, then Pulp were like the Holy Ghost of the Great Britpop Trinity. Well obviously. But in more concrete terms, I'd say that Pulp mixed the sincerity of Oasis with the lyrical bite of Blur. Jarvis Cocker may seem more like Damon Albarn at first, with his sarcasm and wordplay, but as his songs go on, they reveal more of a heartfelt working class melancholy not too different from Noel Gallagher's. Pulp are like the best of both worlds!

On the surface of it, though, Pulp should not be that good. People like to accuse Oasis of essentially cobbling a bunch of pre-existing songs together and passing it all off as something original, but Pulp are not exactly the most melodically creative band either. But come on, melodic originality is overrated. Why try to bend and squirm in order to create some amazing new chord progression that sounds like a dying giraffe? Pulp don't have a single original chord change in their entire bodies. But what Pulp prove is that you don't need unique chord changes as long you have unique production, unique lyrics, and a unique performance style. Listening to Pulp is like putting on a pair of comfy, worn-in slippers. When a Pulp song starts, you rest easy because you know that when the chorus comes it will be catchy in that familiar, exciting, and gratifying way and not in some overly-complicated, forced, and disappointing way.

It also helps when your producer, Chris Thomas, got his start in the recording business as a last-minute stand-in for George Martin during a White Album session, and whose other credits include Dark Side of the Moon, For Your Pleasure, and Nevermind The Bollocks, It's The Sex Pistols (not to mention The Pretenders, INXS, and '80s Elton John!). But that doesn't entirely explain the '60s girl group/rejected James Bond theme/'80s Madonna/tacky lounge singer concoction that Pulp have perfected so thoroughly.

What really sets Pulp over the edge, of course, is Jarvis' talents as a songwriter. Glam Rock/New Wave isn't usually this...intellectual. Picture Morrissey fronting The Cars and you might get the idea. Jarvis is like that kid in acting class who treats the world as his therapist, but he's so ridiculous that everybody can't help but laugh. He knows how to be outrageous and genuine at the same time. Just look at the guy! I dare you not to like him.

So what about Different Class itself, then? Well, since as far as I'm concerned every song on the album aside from maybe two (I'm looking at you, "Pencil Skirt" and "F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.") are hit single-worthy (I believe five were ultimately released from the album), it's hard to know quite where to begin. I might as well start with the album's most well-known cut, "Common People," which is an exemplary display of Cocker's combination of humor and depth. Initially the song sounds like another typical sleazy sex romp:

She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge,
She studied sculpture at Saint Martin's College,
That's where I,
Caught her eye.
She told me that her Dad was loaded,
I said "In that case I'll have a rum and coca-cola."
She said "Fine."
And in thirty seconds time she said,

"I want to live like common people,
I want to do whatever common people do,
I want to sleep with common people,
I want to sleep with common people,
Like you."

Oh that naughty, naughty Jarvis. At this point you're thinking you could probably write the rest of the song yourself. But oh, what a turn it takes! Instead of bedding this shallow piece of Eurotrash, Jarvis turns around and puts her in her place:

Rent a flat above the shop
Cut your hair and get a job
Smoke some fags and play some pool
Pretend you never went to school
But still you'll never get it right
'Cause when you're laying in bed at night
Watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your dad he could stop it all yeah

You'll never live like common people
You'll never do whatever common people do
You'll never fail like common people
You'll never watch your life slide out of view
And then dance and drink and screw
Because there's nothing else to do

Being the product of a American trailer park myself, I must admit I don't need to be too creative in relating to Jarvis' anger. The mere words alone don't quite convey the emotion that Jarvis brings to the song. He knows just when to dial it down and turn it up. At about the two-thirds mark, he switches to a whisper:

Like a dog lying in the corner
They will bite you and never warn you, look out
They'll tear your insides out
'Cause everybody hates a tourist
Especially one who thinks it's all such a laugh
And the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath

As he sings the "chip stains and grease" line his voice builds in intensity, as if he can't keep his disgust under control any longer, until he breaks out into a full-throttle shout, skillfully emphasizing the third word of each line:

You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left you go
You are amazed that they exist
And yet they burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why

Take that, you rich little skank! It's a righteous, invigorating piece of work, all right. And it's only my sixth favorite song on the album!

I think because Pulp had toiled in obscurity for so long, once they finally had a hit album in 1994 (His 'n' Hers - I recommend it), they knew they had to seize the moment and make the most of their chance at the spotlight. The band was already hot; by the time they got to Different Class they were just plain en fuego. And because Pulp reached stardom so late in their career, they became one of the few rock bands to express the frustrations and disappointments of middle age. All throughout the album, Jarvis constantly laments the ways in which his life, and the lives of his characters, haven't turned out quite the way he or they would have hoped.

For example: "Disco 2000," a song which not only rips off the irresistably catchy riff from Laura Branigan's '80s Aerobic Rock classic "Gloria" for its verses, but manages to feature a chorus that is somehow even catchier! Here a middle-aged Jarvis bumps into a girl he used to have a crush on as a kid, and he comes to the bittersweet realization that while she's married and has a baby, he's still a lonely bachelor. At first his reminiscences are shamelessly sleazy:

You were the first girl at school to get breasts
And Martin said that you were the best
Oh the boys all loved you but I was a mess
I had to watch 'em try and get you undressed

But on the chorus, he thinks back to a conversation the two of them had as children:

"Let's all meet up in the year 2000
Won't it be strange when we're all fully grown?
Be there, 2 o'clock, by the fountain down the road"
I never though that you'd be married
And I would be living down here on my own
On that damp and lonely Thursday years ago.

So two roads diverged in the wood, and Jarvis took the road less traveled. And he feels like a pathetic loser!

A note on the sleaze: I don't usually care for songs about wild sexual exploits (*cough* Prince *cough*), but I don't mind it with Pulp, because Jarvis never sounds like he finds his wild sexual exploits particularly fulfilling or gratifying. Beneath the steamy sex lies a sea of frustration, fear, and loss. Jarvis' songs about sex aren't really about sex; they're actually about loneliness and disappointment. Take "Live Bed Show," where Jarvis chronicles a young woman whose sex life has inexplicably dried up - but from the point of view of the bed(!):

This bed has seen it all,
From the first time to the last,
The silences of now,
And the good times of the past
And it only cost ten pounds,
From a shop just down the road,
Mind you that was seven years ago,
And things were very different then

It didn't get much rest at first,
The headboard banging in the night
The neighbours didn't dare complain,
Oh everything was going right
Now there's no need to complain,
Cos it never makes a sound
Something beautiful left town,
And she doesn't even know its name

Jesus, I need at least three hankies to handle that one. Indeed, I find some of the songs on Different Class so affecting that I can barely even listen to them at all. "Something Changed" is so poignant it almost makes me vomit. It's like a Britpop version of Paul Simon's "Something So Right," where we catch Jarvis in a rare, cautiously optimistic, mood:

I wrote this song two hours before we met
I didn't know your name or what you looked like yet
Oh I could have stayed at home and gone to bed
I could have gone to see a film instead
You might have changed your mind and seen your friends
Life could have been very different but then,
Something changed

Jarvis, a natural-born cynic, finds it almost impossible to accept his own good fortune. It's like, "Why would anybody want to love pathetic old me?":

Why did I write this song on that one day?
Why did you touch my hand and softly say
Stop asking questions that don't matter anyway
Just give us a kiss to celebrate here today
Something changed

Indeed, I suspect such a sentiment was difficult for Jarvis to dwell on for too long, as the album immediately switches gears (with his cheerfully knowing take on rave culture, "Sorted for E's and Wizz), and never comes back to anything resembling romantic bliss.

"Underwear," like "Disco 2000" and "Live Bed Show" before it, is equal parts sleazy, comical, and tragic. Despite winning one-liners such as "If fashion is your trade/Then when you're naked/I guess you must be unemployed yeah," both the protagonist and narrator (who seems to have some personal investment in the girl's sex life) sound rather tortured:

I couldn't stop it now
There's no way to get out
He's standing far too near
How the hell did you get here
Semi-naked in somebody else's room
I'd give my whole life to see it
Just you,
Stood there,
Only in your underwear

After some guitar texture worthy of Johnny Marr, Jarvis slides into a quiet baritone:

If you could close your eyes and just remember,
That this is what you wanted last night
So why is it so hard for you to touch him
For you to go and give yourself to him, Oh Jesus!

What I love about Jarvis is that he's able to capture so many sides to a situation. Relationships aren't only just funny, or only just sad, but they're both at the same time. Because he doesn't simplify the messiness, his work is more honest as a result.

Now, as good as the first four-fifths of Different Class is, for me what launches the album into a class of its own is the strength of the last two tracks. Usually an album has shot its wad at this point but apparently Pulp have only been just warming up. Which is not to say that the last two tracks should have been released as singles. They are perfect, all right, but perfect as album tracks. And they find Jarvis abandoning sex entirely to close the album out on an almost PG kind of melancholic note.

"Monday Mourning," may not be the most lyrically impressive song on the album (although the lyrics are enjoyable enough), but for me might be the most musically thrilling and most skillfully produced. The band gets particular mileage out of some well-timed acoustic guitar flourishes, some well-layered keyboard overdubs, and some eerily high-pitched electric guitar soloing at the track's conclusion, over which Jarvis alternates between maniacal shouting and some irresistible "doo-doo-doo"s. Everything eventually comes to a screeching halt with a synthesizer sound evocative of a giant intergalactic spaceship powering down for the night. I've never read a review of Different Class that singled out the song, but for me it's one of the most exciting pieces of pop music...ever.

After the frenetic intensity of "Monday Mourning," "Bar Italia" is like the quiet, early morning last hurrah, before the hangover finally kicks in:

That's what you get from clubbing it
You can't go home and go to bed,
Because it hasn't worn off yet,
And now it's morning
There's only one place we can go
It's around the corner in Soho,
Where other broken people go
Let's go

I think Jarvis himself sensed that he was "drunk" on fame, and that once the excitement finally wore off he'd have to face a dark night of the soul (ie. This is Hardcore), but in 1995, for just this one delicate moment, riding the momentum of Britpop, he could accept that he didn't need to torture himself and sit around and "ask questions that don't matter anyway."

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