First, a little bit of history. Jarvis Cocker was rarely off the airwaves or CD players during my college days. Everyone – almost literally – had a copy of Different Class wearing out their speakers. Some of us even had His ‘N’ Hers.
Both albums were somehow more honest, relevant and just altogether better than anything else around at the time – and, although not as dark as the band’s previous output, they were also much better than anything they’d done before.
There was a BBC documentary on the band, during which Jarvis claimed there was a great deal of potential for him to become the saddest person of the year 1996. Common People and Mis-shapes / Sorted For E’s & Wizz both reached number 2 on what was then a very different UK singles chart, the latter provoking red top tabloids to cry outrage at Pulp’s efforts of educating their young fans in the ways of drug use on their front pages. Jarvis lapped it up, having spent the best part of 15 years trying for the big time.
But there were other effects of fame. Tabloids began to want Jarvis’s time in a way he was quite unused to. The band’s esteemed guitarist and violinist, Russell Senior, left shortly afterwards to form the now defunct band Venini, suggesting that the best time to be in Pulp had come and gone.
A gap of several years flew by and, finally, the “difficult follow-up album” This Is Hardcore emerged in 1998. The title track featured a strings arrangement from a bought-in arranger, showing how much the band missed Senior’s input in that area. That the title track was easily the best thing on an otherwise off-the-rails mess of an album spoke volumes for how the band were coping with fame and fortune. It was enough to keep them in the public gaze, however, while Jarvis and bassist Steve Mackay formed DJ collective Desperate and new guitarist and keyboardist Mark Webber ran film nights at the ICA. This year, the band’s latest incarnation is exposed on the album We Love Life, itself twice renamed since it was initially submitted to pleasingly patient label Island Records.
This time round, there is no obvious wish for singles chart success to be found; instead we have an album that hangs together musically and stylistically and offers at once personal but less immediate lyrics, put together by producer Scott Walker (the first time he’s produced an album for other than himself) and featuring guests such as Jarvis’s fellow Sheffield chap Richard Hawley, an accomplished singer-songwriter-guitarist in his own right who has just released his second album, Late Night Final. The pedigree of musicians involved here is therefore not to be sniffed at. The combination seems to have worked, for while This Is Hardcore was musically very patchy, We Love Life offers several moments of grandiose musical wonder.
In opener Weeds, a rhythm section that would have almost been at home on The Seventh Seal batters its way around Levellers-esque guitar and vocals work, the lyrics tackling everything from planting seeds, to weeds appearing in “cracks in the pavement” and “places you don’t go”, to smoking weed. Here he maps out themes around which he moulds the rest of the album, notably Weeds II (The Origin of the Species); and they are to an extent familiar themes for Pulp fans. Where Jarvis is going with the line “go on, shove it up me if you must” is anyone’s guess, however.
Weeds II (The Origin of the Species) cleverly follows on from Weeds but changes the driving rhythm to something altogether more atmospheric and seedy, Jarvis whisperin’ over the top about life on the margins of society, about people on the fringes and how they are viewed by those supposedly in the centre. “Come on, do your dance, come on, do your funny little dance,” he whispers through echoing atmospherics to himself. It is precisely the sort of music you’d like to be stoned to. All of which is poignant in the UK just now, with Afroman‘s Because I Got High at number one in the singles chart and David Blunkett relaxing the preposterous laws on cannabis in the UK just this week (but, of course, not by enough to allow people to buy from anyone other than an officially sanctioned outlaw).
The Night That Minnie Timperley Died was apparently written in ten minutes and shows Jarvis’s voice at its momst fragile; somehow he *just* manages to hit the notes in the chorus in what is probably the most commercially viable song on the album, despite being about a beautiful girl who dies at a rave. The Trees brings us back to plant themes again and stutters along nicely, while Wickerman shows Scott Walker’s influence in bright lights, all strings, backing ‘aaaaaaaaaaaahs’ and dramatic rhythms. It is spectacularly epic in scope and goes on for over eight minutes, conveying the concept of a river which flows through a timeless course whilst all else around it mutates.
I Love Life is a little too close to This Is Hardcore musically (ie. it is all over the place); it does however contain the album defining line “You’ve got to fight to the death for the right to live your life”. The Birds In Your Garden bizarrely would probably sound at home in a Richard Hawley set, being all ’50s retro, but didn’t involve him. He appears again on the next track, Bob Lind, offering his twelve string guitar services on a song which is about, according to Jarvis, “a fuck-up”.
Bad Cover Version is another terrific piece of the album and surely must be a single. Candida Doyle is credited with the tune, but it sounds like… a ’50s epic that I can’t put my finger on. It has some of the best lyrics on the album towards the end when discussing imitations, like “Tom & Jerry when the two of them could talk, like The Stones since the eighties, like the last days of Southfork.” And who can forget how naff Dallas was then? You couldn’t even claim it was ironic.
It is followed by Roadkill, which features the excellent Philip Sheppard with his electric cello, whom I last saw in action at a Joby Talbot gig in 1999. It is a melancholy affair, based on cymbals and fragile guitar arpeggios. It would not sound out of place at a Cowboy Junkies gig were it not for Jarvis’s voice; you can just imagine them singing about deer dying in the road. It’d make a great B-side, if people still release tapes and 7″ singles these days.
And then there’s the wonderful Sunrise to finish the album off, with a terrific choir-versus-guitar wig-out at the end which distills so well all the majesty of dawn – and the strange feelings associated with the moment when you realise you’ve not been to bed. The album is almost worth buying for just this track.
Are Pulp out of the woods with We Love Life? Probably, for if nothing else it well and truly confirms Jarvis Cocker as a true auteur, an artist who does not always produce the work people like but who seems increasingly happy with what he stands for as he nears his fortieth birthday. Let’s hope that those who claim this to be Pulp’s swansong are wide of the mark, for on the evidence of We Love Life, this band have a lot of creativity left in them.