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Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker will forever be remembered for his impetuous “stage invasion” during Michael Jackson’s performance at the 1996 BRIT Awards. It was the perfect rock moment: Cocker—who later said, “I just couldn’t go along with it anymore”—made his move just as Jacko was being hoisted over the stage in a crucifixion pose. It was so magnificent that it led British music magazine Melody Maker to call for Cocker’s knighting.
Although the queen declined to take Melody Maker up on its request, I’m still hoping she’ll reconsider. Cocker is every bit as deserving of the sword-on-the-shoulder treatment as Sir Elton John—and not just because he dared to prick the swollen balloon of Jackson’s messianic delusions. No, Cocker deserves knighthood because behind his guise of sartorially resplendent satyr and style barometer, he has established himself as one of Britain’s most astute social critics.
Almost alone among his music-biz contemporaries, Cocker has managed to capture not only a generation’s fantasies but also the wide gulf that separates those fantasies from their uncomfortable reality. Precisely because he is a jaded voluptuary, Cocker has managed to telegraph the hedonist’s dilemma with no little glee and an always telling sense of sympathy. He is the detached but not unfeeling observer who—to use Cocker’s own imagery—sees us all sitting uncomfortably in our underwear, waiting for the sex thrills we thought we wanted but now can’t remember why.
And let’s not forget that his band, Pulp, has made some of the smartest, darkest, and most empathetic music of the past decade. Take 1998’s This Is Hardcore. Pop fans may have avoided it like Ebola in CD format, and the fickle fops at New Musical Express may have written it off as “drab and largely tuneless…a wretched cliche,” but that just goes to show that your average music fan is an idiot and your average music critic is an even bigger idiot. This Is Hardcore is a work of stupefying brilliance, ranking right up there on my list of 10 Favorite Albums About Disillusionment and Excess with Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, Lou Reed’s Berlin, and X’s Los Angeles.
This Is Hardcore is a dissection of the premillennial mores of Britain’s party-hard crowd set to a glam-disco beat, “a horror soundtrack from a stagnant water bed,” as Cocker puts it, in which everyone is a debaser or debasee in some private skinflick and love is a simple question of pneumatics: “That goes in there/Then that goes in there/Then that goes in there/Then that goes in there/And then it’s over.” It’s no surprise that fans were left wondering what Pulp could possibly do for an encore. Cocker seemed to have painted his band into a sticky-floored peep show booth of a corner.
Well, we need wonder no longer, because on its new album, We Love Life, Pulp attempts to turn a new leaf by going, well, back to nature. To judge by the song titles, the only people Cocker’s been partying hard with lately are the Lake Poets: “Weeds,” “The Trees,” “Sunrise,” “The Birds in Your Garden,” and, in case you didn’t catch it the first time, “Weeds II (The Origin of the Species).” Why, he even throws a deer and a magpie into the mix. Of course, Pulp being Pulp, the trees are derided as “useless” and the deer and the magpie are roadkill and gunshot victim, respectively. Nonetheless, We Love Life constitutes a step away from cynicism and a search for some positive meaning in life.
Produced by Scott Walker, the reclusive ’60s pop idol whose utter fabulousness has influenced an entire generation of flamboyant Brits, We Love Life sounds great. Just check out the majestic, string-laden chorus on “The Night That Minnie Timperley Died” or the “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” choir action on “Sunrise.” Or, for that matter, the blitzkrieg of double basses that sweeps through the jaunty “Bob Lind (The Only Way Is Down),” which begins “When you think you’re treading water/But you’re just learning how to drown” and features a chorus that goes “It will not stop/It will get worse from day to day/’Til you admit that you’re a fuck-up/Like the rest of us.”
That said, something’s missing from We Love Life, and that something is really two somethings. The first is structural: The album may contain some great songs, but there’s no thematic thread holding them together. The nature metaphor is too diffuse, and Cocker’s double-edged handling of it too ambiguous; the album lacks the conceptual focus that made This Is Hardcore and 1995’s Different Class masterpieces. The second is material: The songs at the beginning and end of We Love Life are splendid, but the quality of the tunes in between is iffy at best.
Album-opener “Weeds” doesn’t sound like typical Pulp; it’s harder, almost martial. Forget the disco, baby; this is rock. Thematically, it’s a rewrite of Different Class’ “Common People,” a fuck-you to the slumming rich who turn to the poor only for drugs and sex: “You want some entertainment?/Go on, shove it up me—if you must.” Too bad it segues into “Weeds II (The Origin of the Species),” a somewhat meandering spoken-word diatribe set atop a funky beat.
Fortunately, Pulp follows up with “The Night That Minnie Timperley Died” and “The Trees,” both of which are as good as anything the band’s ever done. The former is a fictionalized account of death on the rave scene set to what is probably the catchiest pop melody Cocker’s come up with since Different Class’ “Sorted for E’s & Wizz.” Here, Cocker drops the mask, abandons irony, and simply mourns a life snuffed out before its time. “The Trees” is wonderful as well, a breezy and string-heavy salute to the beautiful pointlessness of nature: “The trees/Those useless trees/Produce the air that I am breathing/Yeah, the trees/Those useless trees/They never said that you were leaving.” A nice touch, that part about the air, but does Cocker really care? No, he just wants his girl back.
If We Love Life ended with “The Trees,” I’d be calling it one of the best EPs to come out in a while. But the album takes a wrong turn with “Wickerman,” Cocker’s eight-minute (though it sounds longer) paean to Sheffield, where he grew up. It reminds me of Van Morrison’s rambling monologues about his childhood in sunny Eire: They have their charms, but after a while you find yourself wishing that the old geezer would gasp his last. Why Pulp saw fit to drop this monstrosity in the center of its album, stopping it deader than the Wehrmacht on the snowy steppes of Russia, is beyond me. Why, I haven’t heard anything so out of place since “We Will Fall” found its way onto the first Stooges album. Musically, “Wickerman” has its moments; you get spaghetti-western guitar, groovy organ fills, astral choirs, strings, and even a sample from the soundtrack to the film The Wicker Man and some histrionic bursts of thunder. But there’s a proper place for everything, and the place for “Wickerman” is on a yet-to-be-recorded concept album about Cocker’s pastoral boyhood.
To make things worse, “Wickerman” is followed by the anemic “I Love Life,” a midtempo wannabe-anthem that seems to have had the joy squeezed out of it sometime during the recording process. Maybe it’s Cocker’s idea of irony: a lifeless song about loving life. If so, I’m not buying, although the guitar caterwaul that closes the track almost makes me an impulse shopper. And just when Pulp begins to build up some new momentum with the romantic ballad “The Birds in Your Garden” and the pure-pop number “Bob Lind (The Only Way Is Down),” along comes “Bad Cover Version,” a great idea that doesn’t quite work out. Cocker tells his girl that he’s irreplaceable, that the poor fellow designated to fill his shoes is bound to be “like the Stones since the ’80s” or “an own-brand box of cornflakes.” But the music drags along like a fat man with pit bulls clamped on his ankles.
Cocker has established himself as one of pop’s premier statement makers. Not only does he have the vision and skills to justify that most horrifying of musical monstrosities, the concept album, but his particular talents seem to make the concept album a necessity. When he releases an LP of unrelated songs, something is lost, and every time I listen to We Love Life, I’m reminded of a proclamation by another style-conscious gadfly who couldn’t stop criticizing Ol’ Mother England: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” CP