Thursday, May 29, 2008

Refuse to be Blind

According to Jarvis, this is “just a blatant Joy Division rip-off.” “Blatant” may actually be too strong a word. There’s not much of Martin Hannett’s eerie use of space and echo here. Instead, the production is fairly busy, with relentlessly squiggling synths all over the track. As Jarvis explains in his liner notes, since their ‘81 Peel Session wound up being their first experience in a real studio, they were determined to make the most of it. So, while most bands used their time at the BBC to bang out quick, mostly live renditions, the nascent Pulp instead eagerly used their time to finally indulge in all sorts of engineering and arrangement whims. Most notably, there’s the vocoder-like processing effect on Jarvis’ voice as he sings the title at the end (causing the band’s one-time driver to exclaim “I am a fucking Dalek!”; sadly, that did not make it onto the recording).

The song itself is a good bit of energetic, doomy post-punk, but lacks any real distinction. The lyrics imply a lot, but they’re most enigmatic and feel incomplete.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Glory Days

Famously, the Criterion Special Edition DVD of Terry Gilliam’s classic Brazil contains the studio’s edit of the film, which fortunately was not the one released to theaters. However, the edit is cited as a fascinating example of the ways film editing can change crucial elements of story and character. Similarly, “Glory Days” – the final resting place of the “Cocaine Socialism” recording – shows how one can totally alter the spirit of a piece of music through mixing.

All the brashest elements of “Cocaine Socialism” have been excised, most notably the horns. There’s less echo, and the band’s parts sound much more muted. What was once savage is now strangely elegiac.

Jarvis seems to now regret this rewrite, recently describing “Glory Days” as “about nothing really.” I strongly beg to differ. The song is arguably one of Pulp’s most resonant and poignant, a grand summation of life’s most mundane moments. Here; as much as any other song, Jarvis posits that the most insignificant parts of existence can be fraught with odd poetry and meaning. The song is filled with casual desperation and procrastination, only to realize that the waiting was, in fact, the real point of it all. The song culminates with a deeply impassioned plea – perhaps to himself – to commit these crucial trivialities for posterity.

These glory days can take their toll

So catch me now

Before I turn to gold.

Yeah, we'd love to hear your story

Just as long as it tells us where we are

That where we are is where we're meant to be.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cocaine Socialism

It would’ve been one hell of a comeback single -- a five-minute exegeses detailing the corroded state of British politics. It was Pulp’s most ambitious recording to date, with the band sparing no expense in order to realize their withering vision.

But instead, it was shelved, then used to form the basis of a wholly different song, then released in a tapered-down mix as a b-side. Nine years later, the “Proper Version” of “Cocaine Socialism” finally gained official release on the This Is Hardcore reissue.

In recent years, Jarvis has expressed ambivalence about this track’s ultimate fate. While he’s voiced an understandable concern about the song’s musical resemblance to “Common People,” other comments have been more ambiguous. “The basic truth was that I didn’t have the stomach for it anymore,” he says in his liner notes.

It’s a shame, because the fact of the matter is: “Cocaine Socialism” is one of the band’s most significant and accomplished tracks. Jarvis describes the sort of pitch-lines he and other rock celebrities of the time were fielding from Tony Blair minions with some of his most savage bon mots. “You must be a socialist/ ‘Cause you’re always off out on the piss.” The band accompanies him with arena-rock that aims to draw real blood. On the “Proper Version,” garish-sounding horns and backing vocalists are kept high in the mix. These accoutrements manage to make doubly clear the song’s angry vision.

Although it was written in response to UK-specific, now-dated brands like Britpop and New Labour, it’s still relevant in the way it pinpoints the moment when a lifestyle or set of beliefs becomes just another commodity. Idealism is a frail thing, this song says, and in politics it’s almost inevitably usurped for nefarious ends. (“You can be just what you want to be/ Just as long as you don’t try to compete with me.”) Anyone following the current U.S. presidential race with any vested interest would be wise to consider this song’s cautionary tale.

The next post will discuss the song that “Cocaine Socialism” turned into.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

P.T.A. (Parent Teacher Association)

Depicting a teacher (or headmaster) lusting after a student, “P.T.A.” is quite possibly Pulp’s most socially irresponsible song. But Jarvis’ lyric also lingers on the protagonist’s inexperience and feelings of missed opportunities. Plus, the song features a spoken-word interlude, with Jarvis as the teacher and Candida as the student. But “P.T.A.” ultimately suffers for the same reasons as another Different Class b-side, “Ansaphone.” The pop melody is bright, the production is big, but there’s something hollow at the core. The song needs the artiness that Pulp usually brings to the table.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

In Many Ways

If nothing else, It is a triumphant testament to the endless possibilities of reverb. On “In Many Ways,” the opening riff sounds like gossamer, and the folky melody could be something you’d hear at a guitar mass. (Fortunately, you can’t say that about any other song in Pulp’s discography.) For balance, the lyrics are as scathing as It gets. “Hey, you’re treading on my life,” Jarvis coos at the beginning. He goes on to sketch out a relationship’s eventual, painful dissolution. “Pleasure now will justify our love/ See, I even called it ‘love.’”

Monday, May 12, 2008

Monday Morning

It’s songs like this – especially this song, as a matter of fact – that make me wonder how Different Class ever got designated as Pulp’s crowd-pleasing album. The jittery, nervous ska rhythm (I’m fairly certain it’s the only time the band tackled that genre) is a perfect match for Jarvis’ lyric. It’s one of his most sardonic, desperate works, a savage and concise catalog of newfound adult freedoms becoming mind-numbing, soul-killing routine. It’s an anthem for anyone fresh out of college, with a go-nowhere job to support a pointlessly busy, alcohol-soaked social life. The fatalism is crushing, but totally dead-on. “Is this the light of a new day dawning?/ A future bright that you can walk in?/ No, it’s just another Monday morning.” Explain to me again how songs from the subsequent album like this were considered a departure.

This TV performance contains some alternate lyrics. Enjoy.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Acrylic Afternoons

This song, along with “My Legendary Girlfriend” and “Babies” probably did most of the groundwork for establishing Jarvis as the unlikely sex symbol (a status he’s still trying to live down). But this tale of an amorous couple set against a tableau of suburban normalcy also alludes to something less physical. Like many similar Pulp songs, there exists the aching need for escape, as two lovers try to find a way out from the doldrums. Jarvis just wants to stay with her, “lying under the table together with you now.” It’s the tension between this desire and the one behind the song’s innuendos that gives the song an unmistakable edge, making it of a piece with the band’s body of work.

“Acrylic Afternoons” also serves as the name of one of the finest Pulp fansites around.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

My Body May Die

A true lost classic, “My Body May Die” points to a tantalizing, fascinating direction the band never fully explored. Jarvis hands the bulk of vocal duties over to long-running chorale group The Swingle Singers – the song is in fact credited to “Pulp vs. The Swingle Singers.” Underneath a bed of eerie harps and synths, the group intones a weave of verses, ruminating on love and loss. Jarvis emerges mid-way to intone “You thought I would leave you/ I could never leave you/ Wherever you go I will be by your side,” over and over. It never sounds like a threat, but it certainly is a most uneasy kind of reassurance. The performance is one of the band’s most powerfully subtle – take note of Nick Banks’ delicate drum work, miles away from the hard, arena-honed rhythms latter-day Pulp specialized in. It’s one of the band’s most challenging works, lyrically mysterious and musically unexpected. One hopes that Jarvis (if not Pulp as a whole) someday decides to pick up where it left off.

The song was written for the 2000 British television series Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) (a remake of the late-‘60s show of the same name). Songs like this indicate how rewarding a Deluxe Edition of We Love Life could be.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Your Sister's Clothes

"Your Sister’s Clothes” features the sisters from “Babies” four years on. Now the younger sibling finally gets her revenge for earlier years.
--From the liner notes to The Sisters EP

Without that synopsis, you might have trouble connecting “Your Sister’s Clothes” to Pulp’s breakthrough song, even though “Babies” precedes it on The Sisters EP. Nevertheless, the rather threadbare, enigmatic plot (a string of innuendos, really) of “Your Sister’s Clothes” cannot detract from the song’s power, nor the overall brilliance of The Sisters EP. Here, the band pumps up a kitchen-sink epic to almost ridiculous heights, handily avoiding queasy melodrama. Candida Doyle and Russell Senior are in especially fine form here, concocting an ingenious arrangement of keyboards and vari-speed violin. Their instruments seem to move in symbiosis, working together to cover all the right frequencies and plot points.