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The Boston Phoenix Pulp Fictions

Jarvis Cocker's mighty melodramas.

By Charles Taylor

APRIL 6, 1998:  There's no figure in rock and roll right now who, on the surface, is less trustworthy than Pulp's Jarvis Cocker. It's not that Cocker is insincere; it's that insincerity is the weapon he uses to keep us off guard. At various times over the course of Pulp's new album, This Is Hardcore (Island), he affects the roles of leering bachelor-pad roué, visionary messenger of bad news who's bored with himself, and Night of the Living Dead dandy. If Austin Powers was defrosted, Cocker sounds as if he'd risen from the grave.

What separates Cocker from rock-and-roll's lineage of suave British dissemblers is the way it can be almost impossible to figure out what's beneath his masquerade -- if anything is. Bryan Ferry eventually revealed the ardent lover under his lounge-lizard pose, and by now we can hear the romantic inside Neil Tennant's cool ironist. Cocker isn't the artist either of those men is, but he's a lot more slippery. It's not that nothing matters to Cocker. It's just that to hear what does matter means negotiating a difficult mixture: irony is his natural mode of expression, and florid melodrama his natural mode of singing.

That dramatic style fits right into the sometimes anthemic scale of the music on This Is Hardcore, on which Pulp show greater tightness and range than ever before. If a diamond were as hard-edged as the psychedelic dance number "Party Hard," you'd shred your fingers trying to pick it up. The band's playing on the eight-and-a-half-minute "Seductive Barry," the song itself a deconstruction of a Lothario, moves so precisely through layer after layer of sound that you might be listening to an autopsy. The latter number showcases Cocker's special talent for crawling into wormy states of sexual desire and pulling you in after him, close enough to feel he's putting the moves on you. When Cocker sings about sex, he's lubricious and menacing in equal measure; the states of loathing and self-loathing he conjures up ("When I close my eyes I can see/You lowering yourself to my level") might be the work of an embittered and philosophical pornographer.

The risk of expressing yourself primarily through irony is that you'll give the impression it's all a ruse, a feint. Cocker flirts with the heartfelt and sometimes embraces it, but it's never a sloppy embrace. One of his gifts as a songwriter (and he is one of the most literate and pointed lyricists to emerge this decade) is that his sharpness doesn't fail him when he's singing about what matters. "You are the cut that makes me hide my face/You are the party that makes me feel my age," he sings on the gorgeous single "Like a Friend," a revel in a romantic lost cause, as Mark Webber's mournful and finally triumphant guitar solo churns behind him.

But it's on "Glory Days" that the band come clean. There's none of the warm, rueful acceptance of Springsteen's "Glory Days." This song could be a sequel to "Common People," Pulp's finest moment to date and a song that brought class hatred in all its glory back to rock and roll. Pulp's "Glory Days" is about what happens when bohemianism looks no longer like a badge of honor but like a dead end. The singer is gazing back on "the days that we have wasted in the cafés," and his voice tells you he's lamenting them. "Come and share this golden age with me/In my single-room apartment/And if it all amounts to nothing/It doesn't matter/These are still our glory days," he sings, the resentment in his voice edging out the nostalgia. Certain that his life will amount to nothing, he's already weary now that the burnish of youth has worn off. The brightness of the music becomes a taunt, a receding tune the singer finds it harder and harder to dance to. Cocker tries to make a joke ("I could do anything/If only I could get round to it"), but the anguish in his voice chokes off any laughter, and finally he has to acknowledge his circumstances: "When you've seen how big the world is/How can you make do with this?"

For the last verse, Cocker sings as himself, to the man in the song, to the listener, damning the boundaries he's just defined: "We'd love to hear your story/Just as long as it tells us where we are . . . Come on make it up yourself/You don't need anybody else." And after this encouragement, a vow: "And I promise I won't tell these days to anybody else in the world but you." Cocker is trying to get through limits of his own here, the limits of the marketplace, of mechanical reproduction, everything that separates him from the people his music is made to reach. It recalls the sadness of Bryan Ferry, in "Just Another High," addressing the listener: "Singing to you like this is my only way to reach you." Only Cocker, the reach of his vocals now matching the soaring music, is affirming the hard-won glory of life lived by the rules you make up, giving the lie away to performer or fan or critic who isn't willing to stake out a vision of how rock and roll can grow with you. Jarvis makes that possibility sound too good to be a mere fantasy; he makes it sound worth the trouble of the work it will entail.


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