PERMANENT RECORDS: THIS IS ME ON TOP OF YOU
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
08. PULP - THIS IS HARDCORE (1998)
Personnel: Jarvis Cocker, vocals; Candida Doyle, keyboards; Mark Webber, guitars; Steve Mackey, bass; Nick Banks, drums; Anne Dudley, string arrangements & piano ("This Is Hardcore," "A Little Soul," "Glory Days"); Neneh Cherry, vocals ("Seductive Barry")
Producer: Chris Thomas / Label: Island
"Hey, I went to college once--but all they found were rats in my head." - fictional actor auditioning in "This is Hardcore" video
Rock 'n' roll is littered with success-breeds-insanity stories, of stars flaming out just as they achieve their wildest dreams. The onslaught of fame comes so fast, they lose control and rather than engage in "I am a Golden God!" events of debauchery the way the troubled band in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous does, they go mad, screw up, sometimes disappear. Kurt Cobain is the most extreme. He was so bugged out by his own fame, he exited this world completely. Less dramatic types just never end up doing anything substantial, they get stuck in a rut, or they become subjects of "Where are They Now?" features on VH-1.
Perhaps it was the fact that it took more than ten years for Pulp to break out that allowed Jarvis Cocker to spin his insanity into gold. It was released in 1983, and a series of albums followed, but it wasn't until 1994's His 'n' Hers that the band finally found its tipping point, spilling over into the mega phenomenon of 1995's Different Class, with its everyman anthem that went everywhere, "Common People." That's when life went a bit cuckoo for Cocker. It's when he found himself arrested for crashing the stage of the Brit Awards and waving his ass at Michael Jackson. That and other such antics made him a hero to guys like me, but it also thrust him so out into the public spotlight, he couldn't help but shrink from its glare.
Two years would pass before Pulp would release another single ("Help the Aged"), and three before This is Hardcore would finally hit record stores. The coldness of the cover, the subjugated woman as mannequin, was the first sign all was not right down in Sheffield. What's the old proverb? Better to have everyone think you've gone unhinged than open your mouth and remove all doubt? Well, pop This is Hardcore in your CD player and do just that.
Only, you'll discover that for Cocker, coming unhinged was not such a bad thing. This is Hardcore is an aural painting of madness. As the opening track, the monumental paean to anxiety "The Fear" proclaims, "This is the sound of someone losing the plot -- making out that they're okay when they're not." It's the mission statement of the album, the place where Jarvis is calling from. Knowing this is not the record everyone was expecting, he even lowers our expectations for us, declaring "You're going to like it, but not a lot."
Of course, he's wrong. I liked it heaps. It would be easy to say he was being cheeky with that line, winking ironically while covering his bases just in case. Based on Pulp's previous output, I don't think it would be entirely unfair. Yet, "The Fear" is such a pressure cooker of a song, its honesty is almost too bald. I don't hear it as false self-deprecation, but the true reaction of an artist who has stepped back from what he has done and has no idea what to think of it, let alone how it came out of him. It's proof positive that the anxiousness of the song isn't a put-on. If you still aren't sure, next time you are overburdened with the weight of your own brain, put on "The Fear" and see for yourself how accurately it portrays the strain of a mind gone haywire. (By its stated intention, the song is actually designed to let you in with the hope you'll find a familiar landscape.)
It's a pretty daring move for a band that just a few years prior was on top of the world. For all the Blur vs. Oasis bravado of Britpop, Pulp were the smart man's choice for the kings of rock 'n' roll. If it was the Beatles vs. the Stones all over again, Pulp were the Who, the guys who really knew what it was like to be down in the muck and who were going to sing honestly about it, even if it didn't make them look as cool. Yet, Pete Townshend was always more wicked than John Lennon and Roger Daltrey could easily take Mick Jagger in a fight, and so, too, was Jarvis Cocker's unveiling of suburban sordidness more skeevy than Damon Albarn's great escapes and his hipswung swagger cockier than both Gallaghers combined. As older songs like "Mis-Shapes" and "I Spy" attested, the members of Pulp had gotten their noses bloodied by being true outsiders. Their fame was putting their heels into the necks of all that had held them down, and those enemies ran the gamut from art school smirkers (Blur) to lagered-up loudmouths (Oasis).
Most likely, it's the same intelligence that made them stand out from the pack that assured Pulp's triumph would come with a heavy price. The song "Party Hard" is like a telegram from the heart of the rock 'n' roll storm. Finally the velvet rope has been lifted and Cocker was ushered inside, but it's never as pretty as it looked through the glass. "Entertainment can sometimes be hard when the thing that you love is the same thing that's holding you down," he sings. He's ready for a good time, but he's never going to be able to let himself go. "I was having a whale of a time," he explains, "until your Uncle Psychosis arrived. Why do we have to kill ourselves just to prove we're alive?" Of course, the grandest irony of this song is that it was one of the singles off This is Hardcore, and it sounds like the best party song you've ever heard. I'm sure it still blasts from the stereos of chuckleheaded keggers where people don't get that it's the antithesis of what they're chasing.
Of course, Jarvis Cocker is also the antithesis of what we would expect in a popstar. He's gangly and odd and wears thick spectacles. The second track on This is Hardcore is "Dishes," a confession that despite his elevated position, he's just a normal guy who has to wash his own utensils. You can try to make him special, a figure of worship, but he's frighteningly average--"I am not Jesus though I have the same initials." The Christ analogy is not one he comes to lightly, as Cocker happened to be the same age Jesus was when crucified. Again, it's Uncle Psychosis, the doubt from "The Fear," this could be the end for him. This is Hardcore could be the full stop.
Commercially, sure, the record didn't do as well as Different Class (despite reaching #1 in the UK), but who really would have expected it to? The way "Common People" was so ubiquitous, the boost of being part of the Trainspotting pop culture rush, those things could not be duplicated. Artistically, however, there were still new heights to scale. The title track, and the album's second single, is the most involving song about darkness and disaffection that's likely to ever be written. Built around an obscure sample from the Peter Thomas Sound Orchester's "Bolero on the Moon Rocks" (snag it off iTunes, it's worth it) and riddled with a pestering piano track courtesy of Oscar-winning film composer and Art of Noise-member Anne Dudley, "This is Hardcore" (especially as seen in its video) is a Busby Berkeley showstopper that's been slipped a roofie. Like the porn it references, it's a spectacle without feeling, and yet it somehow elicits a reaction. The lyrics are dirty innuendos--"You are hardcore, you make me hard...I like your get-up if you know what I mean...It's what men in stained raincoats pay for"--but all with a clinical, staged delivery. Like the cover model, it's not really living, it's choreographed. That's the threat of it, that it's all being faked, or even worse, so out of one's control as to just be happening by rote. "This is the end of the line I've seen the storyline played out so many times before. Oh that goes in there. Then that goes in there. Then that goes in there. Then that goes in there, & then it's over."* Fame is nothing new, nor is our human drama anyhing new. It's all been outlined. The punchline for Cocker is once more aimed at himself: "Oh, what a hell of a show but what I really want to know: what exactly do you do for an encore? 'Cos this is Hardcore." The last line is the restatement of what he is talking about, referring directly back to the album. The question is the ultimate worry of anyone who has achieved the accolades Pulp has: what next?
The answer and its opposite are both on the album. What makes This is Hardcore a spottier affair than Different Class, arguably the Pulp masterpiece, is where it feels like it's repeating. "TV Movie" is a cross of "Live Bed Show" and the romantic strumming of "Something Changed," while "Sylvia" sounds like "Disco 2001." The similarity of "Glory Days" to "Common People" is so pronounced, that they morphed together on stage. My Japanese edition of This is Hardcore has a bonus disc of Pulp performing at Glastonbury in 1998, and track 9 is "Glory People," an extended finale/medley of the two songs.
Those tracks speak to how hard it is for a band to avoid even slightly repeating itself, while other songs on This is Hardcore speak to where Jarvis could go next, the proverbial encore. "A Little Soul" and "I'm a Man" sit in the middle of the album, and for me, they suggested a new angle for Cocker to explore: an examination of masculinity. The first person narrative of "Soul" suggests that just like fame is inevitable, every man also runs the risk of becoming his father, of falling into the trap of playing the role of man as brute, regardless of how far you try to go to get away from it. "I'm a Man" parodies that masculinity, almost as a precursor to Cocker's misunderstood send-up of jockish industrial music, Relaxed Muscle, several years later. Like "Party Hard," he's duped his listener. Just as you shake your ass to the other song, so do you get into the fist-pumping and testosterone stomp of "I'm a Man." Even "Sylvia" has a little bit of this theme, with Jarvis realizing he was no better than the other boys when he was pursuing Sylvia and apologizing to her.
Interestingly, This is Hardcore finishes at the end of this long, dark tunnel, and Cocker doesn't chicken out when it comes to putting a light there. He actually builds to it with the more "up" songs "Sylvia" ("I know things are gonna get better") and "Glory Days" ("Oh come on make it up yourself - you don't need anyone else"). Even if there is a hint of sarcasm in the latter, as Cocker details how unglorious modern life really is, the song has a feeling of acceptance about it.
It's that acceptance that paves the way for what is next, a song so profound in its epiphany, Cocker even declares, "The Fear is over." The point where this CD began is not the point where it ends. The final song, "The Day After the Revolution," is the culmination of the simplicity of "Glory Days," the realization that life is not the grand drama of "This is Hardcore" or the wild flash of "Party Hard," but it's the tiny things. This revolution didn't happen through action, but through letting go. One night Jarvis went to bed, the next day he woke up free of what ailed him. "Why did it seem so difficult to realise a simple truth? The revolution begins & ends with you," he says, speaking as the man who has been expressing his fear, who has been trying to dry his dishes. "Now all the breakdowns and nightmares look small. Now we decided not to die after all. Because the meek shall inherit absolutely nothing at all. If you stopped being so feeble you could have so much more."
The revolution is a private one, to be sure, but so are all of our anxieties. Even in the face of public scrutiny, as a figure of pop culture, it really just boils down to the individual--even if that individual is five people as a band. So, what began as a brave revelation of mental disease ended as an even braver release. Most other bands would have been scared to ditch the darkness for something much perkier, or to do the real dirty work to sort it all out. "The Day After the Revolution" isn't tacked on or false, it's the actual article. It's by no coincidence, I'm sure, that Pulp's next album was called We Love Life, and the first single was "Sunrise." They really had found a brand new day.
* Song quotes are taken from the lyric book and in most cases, the printed punctuation is preserved.
NOTABLE B-SIDE: One of my favorite Pulp songs is "Razzamatazz," a track that is essentially one long insult written to a stupid girl. In fact, a ton of the quintessential Pulp songs have some of the greatest putdowns ever put in a pop music lyric. For the B-side to "Help the Aged," Jarvis came up with another one, this time attacking the gentleman caller of a roommate, or maybe a lover, it's not entirely clear. All I know is "Laughing Boy" is deliciously cruel (so much so, it inspired a chapter head in The Everlasting). Lines like "If you must kiss those guys, well, you could at least clean your teeth" and when the guy is calling his mother, "If he's so homesick, he could go home," have a white-hot sneer to them. Only someone with as deep of a mean streak as Jarvis Cocker could vocally capture the simultaneous disdain for the girl he is singing to and the boy he is singing about without having to call each one out specifically. In fact, one of the best parts is when he says, "I don't mean to put you down" because he so very much means to. The line that follows, though--"But you've taken everything that I own"--reveals that the song is much deeper than that. Whatever his relationship to the girl, he's emotionally spent, it hasn't gone the way he wanted it to, and he wants out. The instrumentation is limited, a tiny beat suggesting how desolate the reality has become, a slide guitar drawing out the heartbreak. If Cocker is being nasty, it's the sound of an animal striking out in pain.
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Current Soundtrack: Jarvis Cocker solo streaming on his MySpace page.
Current Mood: indifferent
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich