Sunday, September 30, 2007


The first voice you hear on the second Pulp album is not Jarvis’, but rather that of Russell Senior, who also wrote the lyrics. Everything on this cacophonous ode to circus freaks reeks of low-budget, b-movie doom. Russell’s stentorian vocals open the song: “As the signs outside proclaimed, ‘Nature sometimes makes a mistake.’” It’s pretty indicative of Freaks as a whole. At times, the band approaches these gloom-laden sagas so mirthlessly, it’s almost impossible not to laugh. Fortunately, “Fairground” is also one of the few songs on the album where the band seems to be enjoying themselves, attacking the demonic laughter in the choruses with palpable relish.

Jarvis may have passed on vocal and lyric duties to his second-in-command, but his stamp is on the song anyway. He provides some carny announcements near the song's end, and it’s probably no small deal that the song’s concept inspired the album’s title and overriding theme. (“It was called Freaks because I'd been out of school four years and lived this marginal life with no success,” he told an interviewer in 1994.) In “Fairground,” Russell spends much of the lyrics reflecting not on the deformed circus attractions, but a man who laughs not only at the freaks, but at Russell and his sister as well. It’s one of the moments on the album that fully embodies the band’s outsider status. Freaks is easily the most difficult album of Pulp’s career; I’m rarely able to listen to the whole thing myself. But I bet it’s as good as any document of what it was like to be weird, different and broke in England in the ‘80s.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Don't Lose It

While the entire Different Class album is Pulp’s tightest, most streamlined album, this outtake from the album’s demo sessions sounds charmingly unfinished. The band’s staccato, halting attack gives the impression that they’re making it up as they go along. But there’s definitely a compelling lyrical perspective here. Jarvis urges a woman not to give in to undeserving would-be suitors. And he seems to include himself among their ranks. Can we not assume that Jarvis is the one who “wants to put it down on paper/ And put it in a song to sing”? Later he suggests that “you’ll be famous if you let him touch you.” And a few moments later he pleads, “Don’t throw it away/ It means more than a song.” “Don’t Lose It” serves as proof that he’ll give a deep, satirical glance at just about anything, even his own modus operandi.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Happy Endings

Maybe it’s all that reverb on His ‘n’ Hers, but the album is an especially cinematic one for Pulp. More to the point, I think this is the album where the band hit upon the mix of big sounds and intimate stories that makes their songs sound like little Mike Leigh films.

Movies are especially central to “Happy Endings,” as Jarvis opens the song inviting a woman to imagine her life as a film. As keyboards swirl like mirror balls, he sets a scene of romantic surrender, as “the orchestra makes a sound/that goes round and round and round and round…” But by the next verse, he’s revealed that this scenario is indeed fiction; the woman is an ex-lover and he tenderly explains that he’s too cynical and defeated to believe in happy endings. But, knowing that she is also feeling deeply wounded at this point, he hopes that she remembers that she once believed in them, and indeed finds one someday.

Pulp had plenty of big, swooning ballads like this – “She’s Dead,” “Something Changed, “Sylvia,” “Bad Cover Version.” For a possible prototype of these songs, check out Jarvis and Steve’s excellent mix CD from 2006, The Trip. Included therein is a Gene Pitney song called “24, Sycamore,” a gorgeous work of swelling emotion and pinpointed lyrical detail.

At their last concert in 2002, Pulp revived “Happy Endings” with a delicate reading, dominated by slide and acoustic guitars. Since the concert was broadcast on the BBC, it’s fairly findable around the internet, and this performance is among the band’s most poignant.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

We Are The Boyz

Although recorded during the sessions for This Is Hardcore, this song ultimately made its home on the soundtrack to the heavily hyped Todd Haynes glam-rock odyssey Velvet Goldmine. (It actually first appeared as the b-side to “Party Hard.”) With thick guitars and an intentional misspelling, the track was largely viewed as a pastiche of Slade. Tersely describing young lads on the scene, the song initially seems to fit in with “Party Hard” and “I’m a Man”; it may in fact be the more energetic and commercial song of the three.

The twist comes about three-fourths of the way through, when Jarvis fast-forwards to the present day. Suddenly, “We were the boyz.” With just a few simple word choices, the song suddenly goes from brash and proud to mournful and pleading. “C’mon, we’re still the boyz/We’re still the boyz.” You practically watch them age right before your eyes. It’s a testament to the benefits of concise, focused storytelling. Too bad Velvet Goldmine didn’t follow suit. (However, the soundtrack is uniformly excellent.)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Dogs Are Everywhere

An anti-tribute, if you will, to the laddish hard-drinkers who formed Pulp’s rhythm section in the mid-‘80s, bassist Peter Mansell and drummer Magnus Doyle, “Dogs Are Everywhere” is another almost-pop song from this era. It’s nearly wry, especially lines like “They have too much and then/ They have too much again/ And then more.” But Jarvis’ voice is oddly ponderous, striving for profundity. You remember that he really did disapprove of their carousing back then. But now, 20 years later, it’s difficult to tell that the song is not, in fact, a rickety indie-goth novelty, i.e., a joke.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


And in this corner…

“Wickerman” is arguably the culmination of the lyrical and musical themes that had occupied Jarvis and Pulp during the better part of their career. It’s nearly all here: Sheffield and the waters that surround it (in this case, the River Don); the do-or-die moments that come in every romantic situation; a sense of discovery and escape; morbid fascination; working-class desperation; missed opportunities; and the unknowable future. The appeal of a river as a motif in this song is clear: It provides both a sense of stability and mystery.

In weaving their favorite themes in a little over eight minutes, the band winds up with one of their most unique songs, one that seems to unfold unexpectedly every time you hear it, with new lyrical touches rising to the forefront. The music moves sublimely, rising and falling, eventually reaching a crescendo that might be their most dramatic (and from this band, that’s saying something). Additionally, there’s a bittersweet sense of farewell, of a curtain drawing down, as the song closes, fittingly for what’s probably Pulp’s final hurrah.

The connection between this song and Robin Hardy’s classic British horror film The Wicker Man is pretty tenuous at best. Apparently there’s a sample of the film’s soundtrack somewhere in this song, but I’ve yet to precisely detect where it is, in both the song and the film. As noted earlier, Wicker has a different connotation in Pulp’s songs.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

I Spy

The key to understanding this sex- and class-conscious revenge fantasy is that it’s equally a joke, and a canny self-parody at that. Jarvis tips his hand during the mid-song monologue, with one his funniest asides: “It’s just like in the old days. I used to compose my own critical notices. ‘The crowd gasps at Cocker’s masterful control of the bicycle, skillfully avoiding the dog turd outside the corner shop.’ Imagining a blue plaque above the place I first ever touched a girl’s chest...” The song is equally about getting caught up in self-mythologizing, particularly when you’re busy elaborately planning the comeuppance of your foes, real and imagined. This aspect of the song is much more palatable to non-UK listeners, who may not totally comprehend a put-down like “Take your Year in Provence/ and shove it up your ass.” I know I don’t.

At the time of its release, “I Spy” was the apotheosis of the band’s dramatic John Barry side. I believe it also marked the first appearance of a full orchestra on a Pulp album. The song hasn’t entirely held up, partially because Pulp later topped this epic with the string-laden likes of “This Is Hardcore” and “Wickerman.”

Monday, September 3, 2007

You're a Nightmare

With a title like that, you easily expect a withering put-down of a train-wreck of a friend, lover or ex-either. (After all, Pulp have their share of such songs – like “Razzmatazz” and “Like a Friend.”) But Jarvis means the title literally; it’s his way-more-downcast version of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” His nocturnal visions of a past lover are no relief. Instead they’re constant reminders of a time he cannot fully escape or put behind him, despite his best efforts during waking hours.

To those fans attuned to the autobiographical references littering Pulp songs, “You’re a Nightmare” contains a tantalizing one: “There were hotel bedroom birthdays/sleep in factory hallways.” It’s unclear what the first part of that lyric is about, but the “factory hallways” most certainly refer to the abandoned Wicker Factory in Sheffield – a fairly frequent reference point in Pulp's music – where Jarvis lived in the ‘80s in squat-like conditions.

The music of “You’re a Nightmare” perfectly realizes a weary last-call spirit. It helps that the band recorded the song at the BBC for a Peel Session, with no time for endless overdubs, edits and polishes. The band thought highly enough of this rendition to include it on the “Lipgloss” single. Thus, the song wound up on two of 2006’s archival Pulp releases: The double-disc His ‘n’ Hers reissue and The Peel Sessions.