Of the Brit-pop bands Pulp were something of an anomaly because they had been around in one form or another since 1978 and had gained acceptance the hard way over fifteen years, rather than being the overnight sensations that so many other big bands of the era were. Jarvis Cocker was a perfect anti-star, a pipe-cleaner limbed bespectacled figure compared to the laddish geezerdom that was the trademark of the more commercially successful acts of Brit-pop.
Thing is, Brit-pop never meant as much to me as it did to so many of my generation. While I was always ‘retro’ in my music tastes, not much of what I was listening to at the time directly influenced the guitar-pop bands that so frequently made the front of the music weeklies. Yeah, I was listening to old stuff, but it was the wrong kind of old stuff.
Despite this, I can’t help but concede that Different Class is still a solid album. The singles in particular were great, however I associate the album as a whole so much with a time in my life where I wasn’t particularly happy (I purchased it for no better reason than as a feeble attempt to impress a girl at my college that I was desperately trying to catch the attention of – an oddly ‘Pulp’ thing to do), that it’s not an album that I have any great fondness of. It’s a good album for its time, but because of the fact that I can’t help but relate it directly to the mid 90s, I find it has aged much more quickly than maybe it should have done.
It’s probably fair to say that after years of trying to obtain success, when it did come knocking, Pulp didn’t react so well. The first casualty was violin and guitar player Russell Senior, who had been such a vital part of the band’s sound, that his departure was a much more major blow for the band than anyone realised at the time. The rest of Pulp struggled too, with Jarvis Cocker quickly becoming disillusioned with fame, as well as some other members of the band suffering from the downside of the celebrity lifestyle.
In many ways it’s a miracle that Pulp managed to release a follow up album to Different Class, but such was the press and public’s continued fixation with the band and Brit-pop in general, that This is Hardcore was a success, despite it’s considerably darker tone and lack of pop bounce. For those of us that hadn’t completely fallen under the spell of Brit-pop, it was becoming clear that Pulp were in danger of imminently burning-out, if they had not already done so.
The years after This is Hardcore found lesser Brit-pop acts crash and burn as the whole movement was revealed to be little more than a musical case of the emperor’s new clothes and the whole things collapsed into a haze of narcotics and ever less impressive albums. When the dust had settled as the century closed, very few Brit-pop acts were left standing and those that were were evidently on borrowed time.
When Pulp emerged blinking into the sunlight of the new millennium, they sounded genuinely older and wiser – They certainly sounded less interested in being pop stars. While the double A-side single of “Sunrise” / “The Trees” missed the top 20, it at least demonstrated that they had recovered from the Brit-pop hangover. It also demonstrated that they were still capable of penning great tunes, as both sides were highlights of We Love Life, an album that gave the impression that they were on the cusp of a second wind of creativity and that Pulp were going to be one of the key album acts of the new millennium.
We Love Life is the album where Pulp sound comfortable with the aging process and as a result is arguably their most mature and well-rounded album by some way, with less emphasis on sex and sordid relationships and instead distracted by more worldly matters. It starts with the two-part “Weeds” suite, part one of which heralded a more guitar-driven sound for the band whereas the second half reminded you that Pulp was still capable of taking the more difficult road to throw off fair-weather fans. “The Trees” is a great pop single and perhaps enjoyed far more success than it achieved, but ultimately mainstream tastes had moved on since the band’s commercial peak. It’s a great shame, as it deserved to be a far bigger hit than it was. It’s followed by “Wickerman”, which is an epic tune and tries perhaps to be a little too clever for its own good. It’s one of those songs that could have achieved a lot more if its run time had been halved.
The title track and the two tracks that follow “Birds in Your Garden” and “Bob Lind (The Only Way is Down)”, see the band dropping a gear, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing and once again underlines the fact that Pulp had moved on from being pop stars and wanted to make music which perhaps didn’t age as quickly.
Bad Cover Version
The closing three tracks on We Love Life are the album’s best though. “Bad Cover Version” was Pulp’s last single and in retrospect, one of their best (it certainly had by far and away the most entertaining video) – for an act that had specialised in songs about less than perfect relationships, it was a quite brilliant song to sign off with. By the unavoidable direct comparison of following one of the Pulp’s best songs, “Roadkill” can only suffer, but taken on its own merits it’s a cracking tune and a good indication of the mature sound that the band could have utilised if they had continued past this album.
We Love Life ends with “Sunrise”, a brilliant multi-layered closing track which increasingly builds to a guitar freak-out climax which owes a debt to Peggy Suicide era Julian Cope. Again, it’s one of the best singles of the band’s career and deserved to be a much bigger hit than it was.
The fact that none of the three songs on We Love Life that were released as singles breached the top 20 is a real shame, as they’re among Pulp’s best, but the lack of commercial success that met this album (it charted in the top 10, but quickly dropped out again) probably went a long way to contributing to the band’s decision to call it a day in 2003. Listening to it now, We Love Life is one of Pulp’s strongest albums. Scott Walker’s production added a significant extra dimension, Cocker was mining a newly discovered seam of inspiration and heading in a more guitar-orientated direction was doing them the world of good. It’s just a real shame that popular taste had shifted so significantly away from the type of music that Pulp were making at the time.