This Is Hardcore
RS: 4of 5 Stars
Pulp’s “This Is Hardcore” is arguably the first pop album devoted entirely to the subject of the long, slow fade. This is a bold move because it breaks one of rock’s oldest songwriting taboos. Rockers have always fled from the prospect of aging and ignored the mundane details of survival. Even when the Beatles took on the subject, they did it as a lark: “Will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?” Pulp, on the other hand, dive right in. “Help the aged,” Jarvis Cocker sings on the album’s first single, “one time they were just like you.”
So far, Pulp’s chief impact in the United States has been as the band whose leader (Cocker) disrupted a Michael Jackson performance at a British awards ceremony. But Pulp have been at it since 1983, when they were mere teens out of working-class Sheffield, England. It took them a decade to make much of a splash, but their 1995 breakthrough, Different Class, sounded like nothing else on the Brit-pop landscape. With flamboyantly catchy tunes and wry lyrics that commented on everything from rave culture to social snobbery, the album was a defining moment in U.K. pop.
On This Is Hardcore, the band expands on that promise with an album that is less bright and bouncy but that is even more daring and fully realized. From the doorstep of middle age, midthirtyish singer and lyricist Cocker looks to his future with a mild case of nausea, even as drummer Nick Banks, keyboardist Candida Doyle, bassist Steve Mackey and guitarist Mark Webber keep the pop champagne fizzing. Cocker writes songs about aging nightclubbers driving themselves to the brink of exhaustion to feel more “alive” (“Party Hard”), a father shamed by the example he has set for his son (“A Little Soul”) and the recognition that the singer has become “the man who stays home and does the dishes” (“Dishes”).
And yet Hardcore manages not to be a self-absorbed downer. Instead, it plays like a movie, a series of scenes from a life in which the touchstones are the subversive, theatrical glam-pop of Hunky Doryera David Bowie, Mott the Hoople and Roxy Music. Pulp’s cinematic songs tuck their hooks inside dramatic, constantly shifting sonic scenery, from the tambourine-guitar-piano sparseness of “A Little Soul” to the lavish orchestral grandeur of the title track. Cocker wallows in campiness, but no self-respecting lounge would hire this guy: Unsentimental lyrics, unexpected musical juxtapositions and disruptive noises make even Pulp’s silkiest musical passages sound unsettling.
Behind the ridiculously overwrought “Bohemian Rhapsody” chorus of “The Fear,” two sustained guitar notes swing back and forth as though mounted on a rusty hinge until the listener is left contemplating the sound of someone laboring for oxygen. Smokey Robinson’s poignant “The Tracks of My Tears” echoes through “A Little Soul,” as if to amplify how hollow and soulless the singer has become: “I did what was wrong,” sings Cocker, “though I knew what was right.” On “Seductive Barry,” Pulp sail on a sea of strings to Barry White Island, only this time the land of sexual intimacy has become a porn movie:”When I close my eyes, I can see you lowering yourself to my level.”
Cocker’s deeply flawed characters flail around in the limbo between youth and the geriatric ward. But look deeper and the mood turns strangely hopeful. In echoing Peggy Lee’s immortal midlife question, “Is that all there is?,” Cocker isn’t just throwing up his hands in surrender. Even as he describes his inertia in a world defined by fast cars and strong alcohol in “I’m a Man,” he sounds determined to overcome it, his high-pitched vocals machine-gunning his disdain – “Ma-ah-ah-ah-ah-an!”
“Help the Aged” is the wake-up call; it suggests that the folks to be pitied aren’t the ones in the retirement village but those trying to deny the possibility of someday winding up in one. Pulp reach out to the inevitable with a mixture of resignation, compassion and humor, and package it all in a mirror ball of florid strings, helium-enriched vocal harmonies and shimmering guitars. “The Day After the Revolution” suggests a long look in the mirror to cure all that midlife angst. Its closing litany – with Cocker mumbling, “The rave is over, Sheffield is over … men are over, women are over, cholesterol is over” – pays homage to and slyly mocks John Lennon’s clearing-the-decks, post-Beatles manifesto in “God.”
“Bye-bye, bye-bye,” Cocker burbles, like a flight attendant with a bad hangover. In midlife oblivion, Pulp have found a strange kind of liberation. Desperation never sounded quite so entertaining.
GREG KOT Rolling Stone Magazine