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Dec 01

STICK AROUND – Pulp’s We Love Life

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This is a very difficult album to review. This is usually quite a good thing since initially difficult records are usually the most enduring. But Pulp were Laura’s favourite band. In the final stages of her illness one of my stock catchphrases was, “Come on Laura, you’ve got to hang on at least until the Pulp album comes out!” She always laughed at that, and at the time we thought that she might do.

What I cannot fathom is the general media presentation of We Love Life as a “Jarvis-happy/back-to-normal-again” record after the presumed dark night of Hardcore. Lyrically this album is at times as bleak as lyrics can get, and musically…it’s as if Scott Walker took an electron microscope to the band’s little tics and magnified them to telescopic proportions.

You immediately feel the difference right at the start of the opening track “Weeds.” The drums rebound from channel to channel, echoing and resonating with a literally wall-shaking bass reverb. I don’t think I’ve heard drums as loudly and three-dimensionally recorded since Trevor Horn’s early ’80s work. Guitars slash in, making one feel initially that they are trying the Achtung Baby tack. The lyric itself isn’t one of Jarvis’ best, being a rather strained rewrite/remetaphorisation of “Mis-Shapes,” and when the drawled refrain “We’d like to get you out of your mind” comes in, one could almost be listening to Oasis (specifically “Fucking In The Bushes” plus vocals).

I was rather dubious about the whole thing at this stage, but of course should have known better — just as the song is about to climax, it slows right down and segues into “Weeds II (the origin of the species)” where the band moves into another gear which you feel Oasis wouldn’t be able to find. Jarvis does his Barry-White-on-Worthington’s talkover reciting a treatise on weeds which could equally read as self-analysis. “A charming naivety, very short flowering season; no sooner has the first blooming begun than decay sets in.” He then expands on the meaning of “weeds” projecting into cannabis to be consumed at dinner parties and to subsume the original “weeds” back into their proper places. The Swingle Singers hover distantly behind him like a floating citadel.

If “Weeds” is a re-perspectivisation of “Mis-Shapes,” then “The Night that Minnie Timperley Died” is a bookend of sorts to “Sorted For Es & Whizz.” The doomed “beautiful girl” attends a rave-type shindig where her brother is DJing. But here even the pretence of community exposed in “Sorted” has been wrecked. Instead we have “football scarves, the girls drink halves & her brother’s crying ‘cos he has lost his decks.” Needing air, Minnie goes outside where a man offers her a ride. Inevitably murder and/or rape occurs (it’s not made absolutely clear in the lyrics in which sense she “died”) all “‘cos you looked like one of his kids.” Unfortunately the music doesn’t find the invention to animate the lyrics.

“The Trees” I’m slightly ambiguous about. For sure, if Pulp have shot their bolt commercially speaking, the final nail must have been Jarvis’ strangely out-of-tune-can’t-really-be-arsed performance of this song on TOTP. The kids (all there to see S Club 7, Steps and Natalie Imbruglia) couldn’t have but wondered exactly who these daft old buggers were. Lyrically it’s essentially a rewrite of “Whispering Grass,” but although this, as with other songs on the album, purports to be about a breakup, you can’t help but feel, as with Sinatra’s “No One Cares” album, that this goes beyond mere saloon bar lamenting and into something more sinister and/or final. The song does start with Cocker cocking his air-rifle at a magpie, shooting it dead. He then notes “Your skin so pale against the fallen Autumn leaves (another subliminal Sinatra reference) & no-one saw us but the trees.” Is he reminiscing, looking at the deceased magpie or has he stumbled across the body of Minnie Timperley? “You try to shape the world to what you want the world to be. Carving your name a thousand times won’t bring you back to me” (it should be noted that Sinatra left off “Gloomy Sunday” from No One Cares as it was “too damn cheerful”). A driving string riff (sampled from the long-forgotten Tom Courtenay (?) ’60s spy flick “Otley”) certainly keeps the song moving, but Cocker’s vocal is almost determinedly numb throughout (I must admit, the ghastly spectre of the Thompson Twins briefly peeked through the chorus for me). Not the only time on the album where Walker seems intent on reviving 1968 pop to such a degree that you wish he had found a Fairlight compressor to make the job complete (and they still do exist — Geoff Emerick used one on Costello’s Imperial Bedroom). I like the Wyatt-esque organ solo, though.

All of this pales, however, before the astonishing “Wickerman,” the epic centrepiece of this album just as “I Spy” and “Seductive Barry” were the secret hearts beating at the core of the previous two albums. An unthinkable Brit counterpoint to Gillian Welch’s even more phenomenal “I Dream A Highway,” the lyrical concept here is of an Iain Sinclair/Peter Ackroyd-style imagined/actual journey through the course and history of the underground River Porter in Sheffield; detritus recalled and mixed with recollections of Jarvis’ own coming of age while he is clearly reassessing his life as it stands (one clear signpost, where talking about a supposedly legendary suicide viaduct bridge, he intones firmly, “there’s no way you’d get me to jump off that bridge. No chance. Never in a million years.” So even here he is not completely devoid of hope). Then Jarvis goes into a “Night Of The Hunter”-style reverie (“Occasionally catchng a glimpse of the moon, thru’ manhole covers along the route”). Inevitably, at the end of the song time circles in on itself and he considers returning to the source — “I may find you there & float on wherever the river may take me . . . Wherever it wants us to go.” Gillian Welch’s “abandoned boats.” Time becomes an irrelevancy.

Musically the piece is phenomenal; starting off with an almost REM-like guitar motif, it then dramatically expands into slowburning orchestral Technicolor. Now you see why they needed Walker; one incidentally notes the industrial thump/hum which takes the track to an end is the same one which terminated “The Electrician” 23 years previously. A magisterial piece of work.

After that, the title track is a bit of a comedown. A rather ill-advised attempt to rawk out and starting with an uninspired Larkin dilute. The irony of the song is of course double-bolded and double-underlined, so that by the time he squawks the climactic “you’ve got to fight to the death for the right to live your life” (recorded of course before 11 September) in front of a “Kashmir”-type climax, it has kind of made the point more than it really needed to.

A relief, then, to get back to “The Birds in Your Garden,” which is more traditional Pulp and probably would have made a safer first single than the “Trees/Sunrise” double-header. A fine song with an extra beat combo push that ought to put it in alongside forgotten late ’60s pop operatives (the Casuals? Grapefruit? Barry Ryan?), and clearly a deliberate touch of Scott’s, it’s ostensibly a song about taking advantage of life while it’s there — “Take her now. Don’t be scared, it’s alright” — although of course this remains ambiguous, given what we know became of Timperley and knowing that Cocker is a keen shot with an air-rifle (“Cut her off quick,” said the crow — Lanark, Alasdair Gray) — although I think I might be over-exaggerating here and this is simply about a young kid nervous of sex/commitment. Then again, the final line — “Yeah, the birds in your garden, they taught me the words to this song” — well, make of that what you will.

Next comes “Bob Lind — the only way is down)” — the subtitle I think would have sufficed here — beginning with a subtle Hall & Oates lyrical reference. Again, I have to say that musically this is standard, unremarkable Pulp, but the lyrics cut deeply if, like me, you can apply them to the possibility that the partner has not left for a younger man but has left this world for good. The business of coping, the doomed attempts at reconciliation with a not very sympathetic world (“Can I give you all the love I have? — it’s not much but I’ll try & raise a loan”) because the author cannot admit that he is “a fuck-up, like the rest of us.” And the line about “You want someone to screw your brains out; I’d say they’re running out of time & they’d only go & cut themselves on the daggers of your mind. This is your future” — that’s so true. You want to get back to normality somehow, but because the whole business of bereavement floods your mind and you can’t talk about anything else, people will keep a distance from you in fear of impaling upon your problems with the jagged edges of their own.

“I just fell down, could you please help me up? ‘Cos if you help me maybe I could fall in love again.”

Yes.

(Brief diversion: one of the (inadvertently) saddest records I know is “Fastlove” by George Michael. The man who 14 years previously said fuck young marrieds, I want to live/be free, now faces the consequences of such a life, making saddo pick-up attempts in his BMW, soundtracked by an excerpt from “Forget Me Nots” — which was released and charted at the same time as “Wham Rap”)

Next is “Bad Cover Version.” This is not the quasi-Engelbert MoR extravaganza Reynolds claims in his Uncut review, but a replica of ballad form upon which Cocker projects his cynical update of “The Winner Takes It All.” For me, though, the song tries a bit too hard to impress with its faux-cynicism, such that it ends up as a Stuart-Maconie-does-Pulp lyric complete with rather naff comparison points (“a later Tom & Jerry” etc.).

Better is “Roadkill,” a quiet meditation on mortality and the road which could have come straight off that undemonstrative masterpiece of accepted loneliness, East River Pipe’s “The Gasoline Age.” Sad and accepting of his position in life and the realisation that what was is no longer. Dignified like Sinatra’s “Where Do You Go?” is dignified (as indeed would its distant cousin, Lionel Richie’s “Hello” had it not been for That Bloody Video).

The long dark night of the soul ends, as it only can, with “Sunrise.” Initially resentful of the sun rising as he was of the trees, as I sometimes am (why the hell should I have another day to suffer through? I could have gone last night! Better to crawl under the duvet and never come out again). But of course he knows better than this, instinctively, and rises to face the world again. “But you’ve been awake all night,” he concludes, “so why should you crash out at dawn?”

With which he exits the stage and leaves the band and choir to lead him out of the abyss. It powers towards three separate climaxes, as if to say for fuck’s sake don’t go! Stay around! Don’t leave hang on there’s joy and beauty yet people still to meet and to love and stay here don’t desert us don’t kill of what’s left of her in you you need to stay alive for her sake and yeah I’m projecting me onto Jarvis Cocker now but can you really blame me because I respond to what it says and what it says is HANG ON STICK AROUND and you realise he’s talking to you.

“Yet at midnight if here walking,
When the moon sheets wall and tree,
I see forms of old time talking,
Who smile on me.”

(Thomas Hardy, “The House of Hospitalities”)

Marcello Carlin

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