Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Down by the River

Post-It, Pulp was not a harmony band. Most of the time, Jarvis just overdubbed himself umpteenth times, or they hired outside vocalists, such as the Swingle Singers. On their last few tours, the only other person with a vocal mic on stage was the touring, auxiliary guitarist, Richard Hawley. However, “Down by the River” is one of the three Pulp songs to feature harmonies from Candida Doyle, who accompanies Jarvis on the wordless chorus. (There are also two songs where she has a spoken-word part.)

The river in this song is a place of regret and perhaps sinister memories. It has the potential to be hackneyed, but Jarvis’ command over language is so strong by this point that the scenario comes alive. It also helps that the song is perhaps the epitome of the band’s Euro-folk phase, a delicate waltz with a sure and steady swell. I’d love to hear another band take a stab at this, performing it with an extra amount of restraint. Or maybe Pulp could one day revisit it. Hey, it could happen.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia)

Based somewhat on an earlier, very different Pulp song “Nights of Suburbia,” this song wound up on the b-side to the original 1992 “Babies” single. Jarvis’ spoken monologue is almost wholly upstaged by Russell’s groovy surf guitar. The rest of the song title can be explained by Candida’s instrument here -- the stylophone. It is most famously heard on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and it looks like this.

As for that monologue, it describes a lost tribe happening upon a strange (to them) land. A land of bad food, bad weather, bad sex. Yet the easy, convenient comforts of this society lure them in, and soon they are trapped. And because this is a culture founded on repetition, on living life the same way day upon day, it’s all that much harder to break loose.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Blue Girls

In the midst of the sweet, naïve emotions of the It album comes this bombshell, a decidedly morbid piano ballad, with Jarvis crooning eerily about girls who sun-tan themselves to death. “These girls you have loved/are slowly decaying now/Drying out in the sun.” Nothing – not the gentle female backing vocals (including Jarvis’ sister Saskia), not even the jazz flute solo – makes the song any less uneasy, and that’s a good thing. The language here is first-rate, if a little oppressive at times. Many of the pieces of Jarvis’ lyrical voice – his empathy, his morbidity – were in place this early in Pulp’s career. It just took a while for him to meld them convincingly, and to add the all-important sense of humor.

Monday, August 20, 2007


Released in May of 1994, The Sisters EP is a friggin’ masterpiece. When Island Records wanted to re-release “Babies” as a single (it had first come out on Gift Records in ’92), the band allowed it with the provision that three His ‘n’ Hers outtakes also be included. The resulting four-song EP is a testament to Pulp’s incredible streak in the early-to-mid ‘90s.

Perhaps because Separations didn’t see release until June of ’92, two-and-a-half years after the band completed it, they fruitfully channeled their frustrations over the umpteenth setback. After all, here they were, finally in a stable, functioning lineup, with a unique sound within their grasp, and yet their progress was still being stymied. So they built up a backlog of songs that fully crystallized the classic Pulp aesthetic – sleek and stylish, yet witty and wry as well, with ‘70s glam filtered through a forward-thinking mindset. Altogether, the music was always big-hearted, clearly the work of people interested in humans, and in being human. The work the band released on Gift Records in ’92-’93 (anthologized on Pulpintro), followed by their inaugural work for Island Records, His ‘n’ Hers, and the b-sides (and outtakes that would eventually surface) represent a sustained, jaw-dropping burst of creativity.

All four songs on The Sisters EP delight in arpeggio and staccato notes. “Seconds” (track three) strikes immediately with the tense, insistent interplay between Candida’s keyboards and Russell’s plucked violin. It’s a perfect musical backing for Jarvis’ storyline; like many, it’s not about the winners or the losers, but a couple that exists somewhere in the middle, hence the title. She’s an unmarried mother (“with another on the way”). He’s simply “twisted out of shape.” They don’t get along much; they don’t even seem to be from the same planet. They will never feel comfortable in this world, nor have the chance to realize all or any their aspirations. But it doesn’t matter. The chorus positively bursts open, and Jarvis keeps the possibilities equally open. “It still feels like the morning.”

And he makes it clear that this isn’t just where his sympathies lie, it’s where his preferences reside too. “But you’re so perfect,” he sneers halfway through, to a character we did not realize existed in the song till now, someone he’s actually aiming this story towards. “You don’t interest me at all.” And on the final chorus, he lets his misfit couple reign over their ungainly landscape. “My God, they’re still alive/ They got it wrong but they still tried/ And they made it through to the morning.”

Friday, August 17, 2007


With this track, the band is well into its darkest, artiest period. The verses are queasy and groaning, the chorus is frantic and hectoring. This is goth to the point where it sounds like the band is trying to will itself back into the Dark Ages. (Is that a hammered dulcimer in there?) Still, as the song reaches its final crescendo, Jarvis gets in some good, disturbing imagery, though without a lyric sheet it’s pretty impenetrable. “…your reasonable wishes, timetables kisses, your well rehearsed phrases, your separate bedrooms, your forbidden places. Out on the moorland, you're naked and bleeding with no sign of shelter and no place to hide in….”

Monday, August 13, 2007

I'm a Man

Unfairly dismissed by Jarvis a few years after its release, “I’m a Man” proves that the band could never become completely ordinary; they’re just too damned neurotic. (In Mark Sturdy’s Pulp bio, Truth and Beauty, Nick Banks suggests that the song was more successful in live settings.) This is practically the sibling to “Party Hard,” another rock song that combines stadium-sized bloat with Jarvis’ bitterly pointed lyrics and panicked vocals, in order to show the listener how dehumanization really feels. And, like “Party Hard” again, “I’m a Man” is just a potent now, almost ten years after its release. Consider the sobering notion that lad magazines may in fact be the most successful mid-‘90s UK export to America.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Don't You Know

As close to pop as the Freaks album gets, “Don’t You Know” is almost snappy, thanks mainly to Candida’s memorable, simple piano hook. On one hand, Jarvis is still fixated on doomed relationships. “Don’t you know she could break you,” the chorus begins. “Every bone that’s inside of you?” But he spends much of the song advising someone (himself, maybe?) to try to see the positives. I think so, anyway. Read another way, he might just be saying that since you’re stuck here – “here” being both the relationship and Sheffield – you might as well make the best of things. Because, face it, you’re hopeless.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Love is Blind

The best opening track on a Pulp album, “Love is Blind” begins with a yelp from Jarvis over thudding, tribal drum beats. As mentioned before, the band at this point has not wholly integrated itself in a studio setting. Nevertheless, this song announces something, that this is a band with a renewed purpose. The tight, no-frills rhythm section compliments the melodramatic keyboards and call-and-response between guitar and violin. The music gives Jarvis’ romantic and urban angst a new, electric urgency it never really had before. You can almost believe that the fate in the world is indeed in the hands of these hopeless lovers commiserating together one dreary morning.

Many songs on Separations are driven by, if not obsessed with, a sense of time running out. The ten-or-so years of musical struggle had really taken their toll by this point. But Pulp don’t sound defeated here; they’ve instead managed to rally themselves for their latest last chance.

Jarvis’ spoken monologue in the third verse is really something (“We held hands, and we looked out of the bedroom window. We could see the buildings collapsing around us. So we kissed, and we laid on the bed, and we waited for the ceiling to fall in…”). It excuses the clumsy metaphor he follows it with, as he frantically curses a “butcher” who eats lovers. What?

Monday, August 6, 2007

Can I Have My Balls Back, Please?

The title’s hard to beat, that’s for sure. Think of this catchy but dolorous song – which never got past the demo stage – as Pulp’s contribution to the wonderful world of mope-pop. Jarvis doesn’t do much more than repeat the title… but can you blame him? He also makes a vague reference to Christmas of 1997, which he spent in the throes of a nervous breakdown in a luxury hotel in New York City.

In the liner notes to the This Is Hardcore reissue, he uses the song to make a point of Pulp’s disconnect from at least one of their peers. “Some people buy a Mellotron and write OK Computer, we bought one and wrote this.” Sure, “Can I Have My Balls Back, Please?” is a bit of a throwaway, but at least the band committed to even give their throwaways some cockeyed wit. And it’s nice to hear the band in a fairly relaxed performance mode, compared to the heavy, labored sound of Hardcore.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Live Bed Show

Perhaps to balance out these Lynchian portraits of doomed ladies a bit, there are also Pulp songs that take an achingly empathetic view towards brokenhearted women. “Live Bed Show” exists in the same line as what possibly may be Pulp’s greatest song, “Lipgloss.” Whereas “Lipgloss” describes a woman in the early aftermath of an ended relationship, “Live Bed Show” looks at what could be that same woman several years on, still unable to pick up the pieces. There are plenty of songs where Jarvis looks himself in the mirror, trying desperately to wake himself the fuck up, to move on from whatever past event he’s been obsessing over. He’s been there many a time. Even so, it's clear from this lyric alone that he knows what this is all like.

The song twists the “if these walls could talk” cliché, viewing the woman’s life from the perspective of a bed that once witnessed acts of great intimacy and passion, but no longer. “The silences of now/ And the good times of the past.” Even when Jarvis mixes the metaphors more than once – bringing games and TV shows into the mix – it makes perfect sense; he’s showing how someone can see their life as a sad waste, no matter how many different ways they cast it.

I often think of the middle section of Different Class as a treatise of romance from three distinct angles. “Disco 2000” looks at adolescent crushes, “Something Changed” at the surprising ways new love can emerge. “Live Bed Show” fits in by showing what love leaves in its wake.

An alternate mix of “Live Bed Show” is available as a b-side to “Disco 2000.” The main distinction is a spaghetti western guitar solo that occurs after the intro. It’s a minor addition, but it seems to make a difference, prolonging and emphasizing the slow dramatic swell of the music.