Album Review: Pulp - This is Hardcore

In 1995, reluctant Britpop icons Pulp released Different Class, a disco deconstruction of the class divide propelled by the smash-hit lead single Common People. Soaring to the top of the charts and winning the 1996 Mercury Prize, Different Class firmly placed Pulp into the Britpop big league. Not long after, the movement fell apart. Genre pioneers Suede had already distanced themselves from Britpop with 1994’s expansive Dog Man Star and in 1997 Blur pursued more experimental sounds on their self-titled album. To further cement Britpop’s fading status, Oasis – the only ‘Big Four’ band still sticking with the genre – released Be Here Now to unenthusiastic critical reception. Meanwhile, Pulp remained relatively quiet until finally resurfacing in 1998 with This is Hardcore, the hotly anticipated follow-up to Different Class. By then, however, audiences had moved on from the bright, bouncy sounds of Britpop. Incidentally, so had Pulp.

At first glance, This is Hardcore – which turns twenty later this month – fits snugly into the standard ‘follow-up-to-a-breakthrough-album’ mould. Pulp reacted to being suddenly thrust into the bowels of the music industry with a hostility typical of newly successful indie bands (think MGMT’s hallucinogenic Oracular Spectacular follow-up Congratulations). With dark lyrics attacking the commercial music machine and a moody, less danceable approach to songwriting, This is Hardcore was inevitably tough to swallow. It still made it to the top of the charts, but its overall sales were drastically lower than Different Class, beginning a downward spiral that led to Pulp’s breakup four years later. Even with hindsight, it took me a significant number of listens before it finally clicked; This is Hardcore is a masterpiece.

The Fear opens the album with the siren-like wail of Mark Webber’s guitar, suffocating the listener like the panic attacks described in frontman Jarvis Cocker’s attentive lyrics. Cocker offers this “horror soundtrack from a stagnant water-bed” to listeners “no longer searching for beauty or love – just some kind of life with the edges taken off”. This is the world the album occupies. A brooding nightmare of broken relationships and meaningless sex, ruled by the totalitarian overlords of the music industry. All this is vividly painted by Cocker’s masterful lyricism and the band’s perceptive compositions. Party Hard, for example, chronicles the woes of excessive, aimless partying, reflected musically by a claustrophobic wall of sound kept afloat by Steve Mackey’s pulsating bassline. Later, Webber’s guitars descend into gloomy despair as Cocker remarks “funny how it all falls away” on Help The Aged, a brutal acknowledgement of the unrelenting passage of time.

This is Hardcore is an outstanding album that relentlessly challenges the listener, stretched Pulp to their full potential and marked the end of Britpop with exceptional, subversive style.
– Nathan Brooks

The album’s horrifying atmosphere is further built by tracks like Seductive Barry, a skin-crawling fantasy wallowing in eight minutes of hypnotic strings and unsettling harmonies. However, the title track is the album’s true centrepiece. A sinister crescendo of keys, strings and horns build around some of Cocker’s sharpest lyrics. Drawing disturbing parallels between the music and pornography industries, Cocker tears into the dark side of stardom with unmatched wit and precision. “Oh this is hardcore” he cries as Webber’s guitar and Nick Bank’s pounding drums crush him into submission, “There is no way back for you”. Crucially, Cocker also examines how he willingly played into the industry’s hands, avoiding the ungrateful and out-of-touch appearance of similar songs. The slow, menacing feel of the track is a far cry from the dance-rock energy that fuels most of Different Class, but this striking juxtaposition only makes it all the more arresting.

What makes This is Hardcore stand out amongst Pulp’s discography is Cocker’s uncompromising introspection. I’m a Man questions the absurd image of masculinity Cocker is expected to conform to, whilst Dishes reveals the considerate man he strives to be. Hilarious lines like “I am not Jesus, though I have the same initials” and biting observations like “You’ve nowhere to go, but you’ll go there again” are mixed with sincere confessions that properly humanise the frontman for the first time. Cocker reveals deeper scars on A Little Soul, imagining his absent father riddled with regret and wishing he “could show a little soul”. However, the most heartbreaking moment comes on TV Movie. Here, Cocker compares post-relationship loneliness to an insufferable made-for-TV film and is so overwhelmed he “can’t even think of anything clever to say”.

Then, ten tracks in, the album takes a surprise turn for the optimistic. Sylvia’s huge chorus and euphoric guitar solo defiantly carry Cocker’s encouragements to “keep believing… because you know that you deserve better”. Glory Days fondly appreciates the unremarkable aspects of life and ends on a heartfelt promise to never “sell these days to anybody else in this world but you”. Finally, The Day After The Revolution imagines a utopian fantasy in direct contrast to the seedy dystopia of the rest of the album, rapturously declaring “now all the breakdowns and nightmares look small”. None of these songs lose the grit of the rest of the album, as evident in Glory Daysreferences to benefits and heating bills, but they present it in a more hopeful guise. The instrumentation becomes more vibrant and the melodies more jubilant. They’re an undeniably welcome light at the end of an intensely dark tunnel.

The Day After the Revolution ends with Candida Doyle’s keyboard sustained for ten minutes of blissful ambience. It’s an ingenious way to end such a densely packed album, allowing the listener to come up for air and let everything sink in. This is Hardcore was by no means poorly received; it was even nominated for the 1998 Mercury Prize. However, the jarring diversion from the dancefloor-friendly sounds of Different Class prevented it from being fully appreciated. This is Hardcore is an outstanding album that relentlessly challenges the listener, stretched Pulp to their full potential and marked the end of Britpop with exceptional, subversive style.