Thursday, January 22, 2009
However, I will make the case that, in their own small way, Pulp did their part to expand the capabilities, ideas and language of popular songs. And I think there are three songs that most vividly illustrate this: “My Legendary Girlfriend,” “Common People” and “This Is Hardcore.”
When “This Is Hardcore” came out as a single, a few weeks before the release of the album of the same name, the press, perhaps understandably, honed in on the explicit lyrics, which seemed to describe the making of and participation in pornography with a creeping world-weariness. What makes these lyrics special is how they function as a near-perfect metaphor for Jarvis’ pursuit and ultimate capture of fame. For example, “This is me on top of you/ And I can’t believe that it took me this long,” could easily describe Pulp’s rise to the top of the British charts. And “This Is Hardcore” ultimately describes the corroding and dehumanizing after-effects of fame. Like porn, the song is saying, celebrity is something that seems alluring and forbidden, especially when you’re young; but up close it can turn out to be depressingly hollow.
The music works perfectly with the words. Pulp was never a band of virtuosos, yet their command over arrangement, their ability to use their musicianship to push the song into new territory, is superlative on a song like this. The song’s most florid elements – the glossy grand piano and expansive orchestra – are undercut with some fantastic musical sleaze: the seasick sample (from the music to a ‘60s German sci-fi TV show) and bump-and-grind rhythms. Mark Webber’s guitar enters midway through the song, sounding like Ziggy Stardust Goes Straight to Hell.
Even the video is brilliant, matched in Pulp’s filmed oeuvre only by “Bad Cover Version.” Directed by Doug Nichol, the clip cleverly avoids the porn angle; instead it’s a staggeringly accurate pastiche of a number of classic film styles, most notably Douglas Sirk, Busby Berkeley and film noir. It makes brilliant use of Jarvis and the other members of Pulp to boot. Just watch it already.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Most bands wouldn’t devote such conceptual and musical energy towards a mere b-side. In many ways, “The Professional” handily summarizes the overriding themes of This Is Hardcore. Over a loungy sample, Jarvis practically raps an unsparing litany of self-loathing, painting himself as an aging has-been hack. Like the rest of This Is Hardcore, because Jarvis is so wittily relentless (or relentlessly witty), the song somehow avoids nauseating self-pity. It becomes a weird kind of catharsis. Also, the song is constantly inventive. There’s the moment when the music completely drops out, leaving him sounding completely naked and vulnerable. And there’s a whopper of a final verse, where the song stops being a general treatise on Jarvis’ lameness. Suddenly, the song becomes specific yet ambiguous. Jarvis describes himself abandoning lovers before they awake, only to pick up new ones and begin the deceptions anew. Is “The Professional” a character piece now? Was it always? The song constantly invites new interpretations, making it one of the band’s best b-sides, one that could’ve easily fit onto Hardcore.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Like “Babies” and “Your Sister’s Clothes,” or the Inside Susan trilogy, “Weeds” and this song work hand-in-hand. Here, the connection is especially blatant, since the songs serve as the first two tracks on We Love Life. Unlike the anthemic “Weeds,” this track is spookily electronic, laced with the eerie vocals of The Swingle Singers. But “Weeds II” is even less successful. With his spoken-word monologue, Jarvis threads his central metaphor (weeds = social outcasts) cleanly and fairly cleverly. But none of the lines really sting, and there’s no real pay-off line either. It’s arguably his most unmemorable monologue song, with none of the atmosphere of, say, “Sheffield:
Saturday, January 3, 2009
Pulp recorded this for a tribute to French singer Michel Polnareff in 1993, but it wasn’t released until 1999, by which point the band’s sound had evolved considerably (not to mention the completed transition of guitar players, from Russell Senior to Mark Webber). So upon release, this song must’ve seemed like a strange capsule to a time when the band was eagerly but innocently indulging their most poptastic impulses, filling the arrangement with glam keyboards, boisterous drums and hilarious guitar riffs.
On top of all this, Jarvis delivers a ridiculously camp vocal performance; the song is in French, he doesn’t pretend to understand it and he has a ball with it all the same. There is one spoken English line: “At ten thirty-five precisely I realized I had nowhere left to fall and from that moment it began to get better. Being small and innocent could be an advantage sometimes,” which sure sounds like it came from Jarvis’ pen. Reportedly, he planned to sing the entire song in English, but the translated lyrics made no sense at all. The song’s title, by the way, translates as “The King of the Ants.”