Thursday, 22 March 2012

This is Hardcore Preservation Society (Part Two)

Last week I tackled The Kinks' 1968 album 'The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society'. This week I'd like to delve into an album that I believe is thematically similar; the 1998 Pulp album 'This is Hardcore'.

Like 'Village Green', 'This is Hardcore' sets the agenda with the first song 'The Fear' in which edge-of-your-teeth guitar feedback accompanies lyrics that tell of the indescribable fear that any 90's Ecstasy user would associate with the inevitable comedown from an artificial high. The high is artificial but the fear is also (or is it?) Lead singer Jarvis Cocker probably realised this album would test most casual fans that came aboard with hit album 'A Different Class' and includes the ominous line 'you're going to like it - but not a lot'.

Pulp started as a band in the early 1980s and slogged it out for years before having a hit in 1994 with the album 'His & Hers' and then being swept up in the whole Britpop phenomenon. Overnight they went from being on the dole to being front page newspaper fodder when Jarvis Cocker famously wiggled his ass in disgust at Michael Jackson at a music awards show. Pulp then went on to court controversy with their hit song 'Sorted for E's and Wizz', which to my mind was a damning satire of the pervading drug culture with lines such as 'Mother, I can never come home again, cos I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere, somewhere in a field in Hampshire.'  Nevertheless the tabloids hounded them and as Jarvis Cocker describes in the documentary 'Live Forever' they were even courted by Tony Blair to lend their support for the New Labour party. It's no wonder they followed up Different Class with an album looking at the dark side of fame and giving a two-finger salute to the shallowness of the showbiz industry.

Because they were a bit older and wiser than the average pop band they probably knew they had hit the glass ceiling with the success of 'A Different Class' and pulled out all the stops with the follow-up 'This is Hardcore', knowing they might never be offered this sort of budget to record again. The videos that accompany the album are especially gorgeous (Cocker himself studied film in his youth) with the most notable example being the noir-ish 'This is Hardcore' video which features some Busby Berkeley-esque choreography.

The album itself doesn't really have any singles that are as instantly accessible as 'Common People' and it says something about the sway they had at the time that they were allowed to release a frankly hilarious song about growing old 'Help the Aged' when all the other pop stars at the time were desperately trying to hang on to their youth. Jarvis Cocker was also very witty and I remember an interview where he was asked what colour his hair was before dryly replying with the brand of his hair dye.

It's hard now to imagine a song such as 'A Little Soul' being released as a single by any band - but Pulp did! - and in a perfect world it would be a classic. It's a gorgeous song about a pervading subject on the album - regret. In it Cocker's sleazy alter ego laments that he has 'no wisdom that he wants to pass on' to his child. The video is so simple, but so effective:

Another pivotal song is the single 'Party Hard'. It's probably the most easily accessible song on the album with it's Berlin-era Bowie vocal and its danceable beat but the lyrics tell a different story about people that have nothing to offer beneath the veneer and 'used to have it, but now they've just had it.' This is an album about the comedown from the party and its lingering aftermath, whether it be contemplating your mortality whilst doing domestic chores in the song 'Dishes' or lamenting the fate of Sylvia whose youth and beauty were stolen by a man who 'just wanted to show his friends' and then realising 'I guess I'm just the same as him - but I didn't know it then.' 

It sounds bleak but Cocker's sharp eye for social satire and his own self mockery make it entertaining and even comical. He even lampoons his own unlikely sex-symbol status in the Barry White-esque 'Seductive Barry' which clocks in at almost nine minutes and is perhaps a little testing for the listener.

I suppose another criticism of the album could be that it starts off strongly but then seems to trail off. Cocker himself referenced this in the 'Live Forever' documentary and suggested a stronger ending to the album would have been to replace the song 'Glory Days' with the version they originally recorded which had more biting lyrics and was called 'Cocaine Socialism'. I think he's right that this would have been a bolder statement at the end of the album but it probably wouldn't have sat as well with the other songs. You decide:

Comparing the points of view between Ray Davies' yearning to return to a simpler time and Jarvis Cocker's dystopian yet comical view of a future full of regret, I suppose I'm personally more prone to take Ray Davies side and to romanticise the past like on 'Village Green Preservation Society' - but the past is not really a place I desire to return to. Conversely I don't feel that the future is as bleak as Jarvis Cocker makes out on 'This is Hardcore'. However, on the rare occasion that I find myself doing the dishes (I cook - she cleans up), I do find myself singing the words to Pulp's unofficial anthem for the househusband and the under-utillised - 'Dishes'.

"I'd like to make this water wine, but it's impossible
 - I've got to get these dishes dry"

I even find these words from the song quite comforting:

"I'm not worried that I'll never touch the stars
 'cos stars belong in heaven and the earth is where we are"

Perhaps I'm a glass-half-full sort of guy - it's just that the glass contains dirty dish-water. 

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