I’m going to make no bones here: ‘This is Hardcore’, the difficult follow-up album that was greeted with confusion and consternation on its release, is Pulp’s masterpiece.
I’m going to assume that you’re familiar with at least the final three albums released by arguably the only truly great band to ride the Bullshit Britpop train all the way to Success City. If not then, seriously, stop reading this, go and listen to them all several dozen times and when you’re done, why not take a long hard look at yourself? Seriously! What on earth do you think you’re doing with your life? Time is running out. You need to address your priorities.
‘Different Class’ is a great, great album, and its highlights stand right at the top of the heap of the very best songs of the 1990s. But it has longeurs. It has some skippable tracks. It feels, after all these years, a little worn out. Relatively speaking, ‘This Is Hardcore’ has youth on its side, having been released three years later. However, in content it’s a much, much older record.
‘Different Class’ was a vicious, scabrous, righteously spiteful, uproarious record, and ultimately one with concern for people and society at its heart. ‘This Is Hardcore’ is a stunned, desperate record, reeling in the realisation that there may be very little that can be done for those same people and that there may, ultimately, be no one who can help us. It’s the sound of the party being over, even if it’s still going on, and you no longer know why you came. The queasy feeling when you’ve been out too long for the good of your health and you realise you are stuck, unable to get yourself home. It’s the sound of coming to terms with life, rather than kicking out at life. It’s arguably a hangover record, but more accurately a record for a mid-life crisis: the ultimate hangover that never goes away. It’s a grown up record, and by the time is was released in 1998, we were all grown up.
‘A Different Class’ used sex and cool as weapons in an insurgent class warfare, as Cocker’s avatars seduced theirs ways into the hearts of men and women, lodging there like a destructive shard of ice and destroying those who were economically and politically inaccessible to him. Now, as the follow-up record begins, with ‘The Fear’, even these options, these forms of agency, are closed down. After an eerie guitar line pumps green, backlit fog onto the stage, the album opens with these words:
“This is our music from a bachelor’s den/ the sound of loneliness turned up to ten/ a horror soundtrack from a stagnant water bed/ and it sounds just like this…
This is the sound of someone losing the plot/Making out that they’re okay when they’re not/ You’re gonna like it/But not a lot…
Incidentally, this bracing opening was used for one of the most exhilarating concert openings I’ve ever seen, in the Manchester Apollo, November 1998. Through the aforementioned green fog, Cocker appears in silhouette, the familiar wiry mantis, loveable but to be watched. He sings the first four lines and then, as the next verse begins, out jerks an exact replica. For the first half of the song there are two identical Jarvises gyrating about the stage. More than just a neat trick, this device perfectly portrayed the paranoia and fracturing uncertainty of this piece of work. I can’t find any footage online, which is a shame. I can’t remember many other specific moves pulled by live bands, despite having seen thousands, but this one has stayed with me for the best part of two decades.
Across the rest of the album we meet protagonists trying to come to terms with domesticity, with now failing and depressing sexual exploits, with growing older and, hanging like a spectre across the back of every frame, mortality. The title track, that leering, pre-stunned, descent into red velvet hell, can be read in a number of ways. For me, it has always been life itself that Cocker is describing, through the warped lens of the mechanics of sleazy pornography.
You can’t be a spectator, oh no…/This is hardcore/ There is no way back for you
Then there’s a song like ‘Sylvia’, which reads as a skyscraping plea for forgiveness to someone poorly-done-to by her culture, but also an apology from Cocker as self-appointed narrator for her and her ilk:
Who’s this man you’re talking to? Can’t you see what he wants to do?…
He don’t care about your problems. He just wants to show his friends.
I guess I’m just the same as him – I just didn’t know it then.
I never understood you really & I know it’s too late now.
You didn’t ask to be that way. Oh, I’m sorry Sylvia.
Or there’s ‘A Little Soul’, a sputtering torch song from one generation to the one coming up behind it:
You look like me/Please don’t turn out like me…
If that’s not enough, the closing track, ‘The Day After The Revolution’, more or less brings down the shutters on the whole enterprise. Check the lyrics out at PulpWiki http://www.pulpwiki.net/Pulp/TheDayAfterTheRevolution.
All this would be so much solipsistic mooning about if not for the quality of the songs. Track for track, ‘This Is Hardcore’ is the most inventive, the richest, most rewarding set of songs the band ever produced. With veteran producer Chris Thomas remaining in the control booth, the sound feels simultaneously warmer and more forceful. It’s a confident sound, providing dark irony for a record about the loss of confidence.
Ultimately, this is an accessible, welcoming but still challenging album. It’s life-affirming, even if it’s main achievement it to delineate some of those things life simply cannot hope to overcome. Although it, perhaps mildly, confounded expectations on its release, with hindsight it was exactly what this most pleasing of bands should have done at this point in their long career. It still stands as their crowning work.
Graham listened: Simply an incredibly powerful record and one deserving far more attention than the couple of listens I gave it on release. Not what I was expecting when it came out, but sensed it needed more listening, but it felt like a challenge at the time. It killed on this particular Tuesday night!
Tom listened: Right. Tricky one this! As I wrote up my Triffids blogpost I couldn’t help but compare it to This is Hardcore – a record that sounds, on first acquaintances, mired in the execrable (to me) self-congratulatory sounds of Britpop. That first song is a dead ringer for Suede. Every other song sounds like Ziggy era Bowie or Transformer era Lou – uninteresting starting points for a musical movement if you ask me but intractably connected to the melodies and soundscapes of Britpop. I have even gone back to my beloved Radiator and C’Mon Kids albums since to see if they sound awful and…well, let’s just say that time hasn’t been kind (especially with the latter). So This is Hardcore caused me problems – on that first listen I just couldn’t see past that bloody scene.
Luckily, Rob had a spare copy. He was keen for someone else to have it. I put my hand up first. Partly because when Rob says something is great…well, he is usually right (but don’t tell him this). Partly because I have always had this suspicion that a lot of fantastic music played at record club has passed me by because of our format. In many cases, one listen just isn’t enough for me. So I have listened to This is Hardcore a few more times now and, you know what? It really is magnificent. Bloody hell, looks like he’s right again (even though some of it still sounds perilously close to Suede).