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Pulp - This Is Hardcore

The briefing for the uninitiated begins with the crucially important note that Jarvis Cocker is—to borrow from Rick James—"the kind you don’t take home to mother." The music made by Jarvis and his band Pulp since the early ’80s, particularly the last two albums and their attendant singles, has been by turns brooding and forlorn, other times fairly celebratory. If there’s been one constant throughout, it’s an undercurrent of perversion. This Britpulp is more like Britperv than Britpop.

Escaping commercial and critical oblivion with their first modest stateside successes—the incomparable single "Babies" from His ‘N’ Hers, followed by the much-lauded ’96 (U.S.) release Different Class and its single "Common People"—made many take notice. Now that the Pulp shtick is a relatively known quantity, what, as Jarvis pleads to know on the title track of This Is Hardcore, will they do for an encore?

True Epicureans, Pulp again indulges its wildest fantasies, and as usual has emerges from the experience with alternating feelings of joy and pain, although ultimately feeling sentimental about the whole thing. "This Is Hardcore" is a twisted ballad, in which a man particularly desperate for action ("action" of the kind Alicia Bridges longed for in "I Love The Night Life," of course) begs the object of his fantasies to make a certain type of, um, film with him. The self-same singer sounds somewhat silly on "Dishes," beginning and ending the tune with the muttered observation, "I am not Jesus, though I have the same initials." The lead single, a do-it-with-older-folks anthem called "Help The Aged," lacks the immediate universal appeal of a "Babies" or a "Common People," and while it has a singable chorus, it’s more a mid-tempo groove than a get-’em-on-the-dance-floor rocker.

As on Different Class, the band makes many musical references without turning derivative. The basic synthesis of ABC, Leonard Cohen, and Prince still applies throughout, with some interesting footnotes. "Party Hard" sounds like decent recent Bowie. "I’m A Man" has a Suede-like chorus. Background voices in "The Fear" sound borrowed from The Wall. There is also a brief but actual vocal cameo by Neneh Cherry and, as on the last album, string arrangements on a few tunes by Art Of Noise’s Anne Dudley. Despite such outside influences, the end sum of Pulp’s parts is always a wholly original amalgam of young lust. From the subversive ’round-the-campfire whistling in "TV Movie" to the mere fact there is indeed a woman present throughout (Candida Doyle on keyboards), there are enough small touches to make sure tensions ebb and flow and keep the proceedings from turning into fodder for remedial sexual harassment training seminars.

Even if the full band is credited with writing most of the songs, though, there’s really never a moment during which it all seems like anything but Mr. Cocker’s party. No one else could speak a line like "I’ve wanted you for years—I only needed the balls to admit it" and sound so, well, earnest. No other singer could so clearly enunciate the letter T—Johnny Mathis aside—and certainly no one could make each T sound so vulgar, so threatening. And so to close this briefing, it is resolved that there is but one Jarvis Cocker, but you’d best keep the loved ones inside the house when he stops by your town.