With music for the people, Pulp firmly on the comeback trail
British popular culture is in the throws of an intense bout of self-analysis, and it's not hard to see why. After a year of riots, protests, media scandals and a royal wedding, 2012 promises more of the same, with Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee, the Olympics and even more pronounced socio-economic decline. In light of this, could there be a better time for one of Britain's foremost modern documentarians to emerge once more into the limelight?
Pulp, with their talismanic frontman Jarvis Cocker, give voice to the realities, dreams and desires of the "outsiders" and "misfits" who arguably represent the majority in Britain: describing the human and physical architecture of everyday life in terms both seedy and restlessly ambitious, grim and unapologetically naturalistic. In the 1950s and 1960s, a similarly aggressive pursuit of "the real" in British theatre and television became known as "kitchen sink" drama and Pulp wore this lineage so proudly they even produced a song called Dishes - about doing the washing-up.
The band are best known for what was an unexpected surge to fame in the Britpop period of the 1990s - with singalong synth-pop anthems such as Common People,Babies and Disco 2000. They were positioned alongside the likes of Blur and Oasis as representing a new British self-consciousness and confidence.
But Pulp's history stretches out long before, and long after, that brief period. After splitting up in 2002, they made their live comeback last year, headlining various festivals across Europe, and this return has been accompanied by a welcome flurry of rediscoveries and new analyses. Wiry lyricist Cocker has just published Mother, Brother, Lover through Faber, a collection of his selected lyrics from across the band's 24-year career; last summer a writer, Owen Hatherley, published Uncommon, a short, polemical book on the band's oeuvre and their politics; and finally, their lesser-known first three albums are about to be re-released: It (1983), Freaks (1987) and Separations (1992).
In the introduction to his lyric collection, Cocker is typically self-deprecating about placing himself in that emerging canon of pop lyricists who are to be treated as poets. Writers like Cocker, or PJ Harvey, or Nick Cave are not poets at all, he rightly admits. They may be something equally great, but their processes, aims and ends are not the same as Plath, Byron or Keats.
Anyone who grew up on Pulp's music will recall the earnest injunction: "Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings" that was contained on all their album sleeves. For Cocker this would ruin the effect of listening - you wouldn't listen to just the drum track in isolation, he argues - but to read them separately is OK, apparently. Read in isolation, Cocker's lyrical skill is there for all to see, in the eloquence of his metaphors, in his sense of rhythm, in his attention to the beauty and poignancy of everyday life, in stories of "pensioners gathering dust like bowls of plastic tulips" or "misfits, raised on a diet of broken biscuits".
Cocker acknowledges how deliberate his realist agenda was: "It's more fun to look for profundity in something that's not designed to have it. 'Pulp' [was] the perfect name for it because this was an attempt to find meaning in the mass-produced and throw-away that we were surrounded by on a daily basis. To sift through and find some beauty in it all. Take a look - it is there."
Pulp's roots are strong and deep, and this is borne out in their every movement. Revisiting these early albums, even a stranger can't help but feel close to their home city of Sheffield (or the People's Republic of South Yorkshire, as it is sometimes known). We hear about this northern English city's industrial monuments, wastelands and communities, specific streets and buildings; even the pivotal, totemic "fountain down the road" at the heart of Disco 2000 is a fountain from the city centre where young Sheffielders would congregate. To understand Sheffield is to understand Pulp, and vice versa - both exist in a unique atmosphere, the emotional paradoxes borne of a gritty, grimy reality on the one hand, and on the other, utopian architecture suggesting a brighter future. As Hatherley writes in Uncommon, Sheffield "more than any other [city] in the UK, attempted to create a viable modernist landscape between the 1950s and 1970s, before the money ran out. Its wildly over-ambitious Brutalist buildings, left in ruins or demolished altogether in the 1990s, provided - still provide - a landscape where there's space to dream of what could have been."
Cocker is always taking us on adventures in Sheffield - in among the banal details there is drama, excitement and urban legend. In this way, the banal realities - "the grey ashtray morning light", as he describes it on Love Is Blind - are never banal, but somehow elevated. On Wickerman, Cocker narrates an incredible eight-minute journey "through dirty brickwork conduits" and across the length of the city, to redemption; it's a brilliant explosion of the idea that urbanism must be claustrophobic. Eleven years earlier, on a similar narrative epic, My Legendary Girlfriend, Cocker speaks softly over a portentous rhythm section and one long, sustained keyboard note: "We went walking through the sleeping town, down deserted streets, frozen gardens grey in the moonlight, fences, down to the canal, creeping slowly past cooling towers, deserted factories, looking for an adventure." As with all of Cocker's soliloquy tracks, like I-Spy, Sheffield: Sex City and Wickerman, the tension builds and builds, and when the dam breaks, it breaks spectacularly - into lurid, spirited, singalong pop choruses and crescendos of passion, despair, or glorious revenge.
Intriguingly, in an interview with The Guardian last autumn, Cocker suggested that this kind of dense lyrical storytelling was fading fast in modern pop music. "Music's changed," he explained, "people still listen to it, but it's not as central, it's more like a scented candle. It sets the mood. Also, because people like to multitask, in a way if you've got a bit of music on in the background and the lyrical content is making you want to listen to it, then that would probably put you off the texting you wanted to do. I think people like things that just make that right kind of noise, but leave your brain free to do something else."
If true, this is pretty tragic, not least because Pulp's slew of high-profile gigs last year proved the appetite for these stories is as strong as ever. Theirs was the standout performance at Glastonbury, and it underlined how much British pop culture needs them. Cocker's withering lyrical attacks on politicians and hypocrites of all stripes are much needed in the Britain of today, as is the resplendent defiance of his songs - whether they be romantic love songs, or paeans to his beloved Sheffield, or most of all, choruses of the everyday, sung to everyone. It was slightly unexpected that the highlight of their triumphant Glastonbury set was the 1995 single Mis-Shapes - it was never the most well-known of their Britpop-era hits - but with 80,000 festivalgoers singing its rousing, working-class rallying cry ("They think they've got us beat, but revenge is going to be so sweet"), it was transformed into a people's anthem to rival Common People.
Hatherley correctly identifies Pulp's singular strength as "the evocation of a devastated but still very much alive postindustrial city" - and in fact, you could replace the word "city" with "country" in that sentence. Most of Britain is devastated, but its people are clinging on. Pulp capture the uniquely windswept desperation of contemporary Britishness: a sense that singing these songs, far from being some kind of hobby, or leisurely indulgence, is utterly, urgently necessary. "We could see all the buildings collapsing around us, so we kissed." Cocker intones, deadpan, on Love Is Blind. What else is there to do, when the world is ending?
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.
Updated: January 13, 2012 04:00 AM