First of all, it’s odd that Pulp exists at all in 2002. This is, after all, the band that essentially committed hara-kiri in 1999 with its epic, hung-over and gorgeous album This Is Hardcore, rather than face another minute in the brutal hothouse of British pop. Stateside, of course, Pulp barely registered in the first place — except for the cultish groundswell of Anglophiles getting off to the glammy sweep of the Brit-hit single “Common People” and its accompanying album, Different Class.
Apparently, This Is Hardcore did the trick — the relatively tepid commercial reaction pushed Pulp closer to the fringe obscurity in which the band had toiled for a decade prior. A fitting way to bury the me-decade ’90s.
It’s in the fringes, or rather, the weeds, that we meet Pulp this time on We Love Life (a record, by the way, that has spent the better part of a year looking for an American label). From the get-go there’s a depressive freshness to the affair, a simultaneous loosening of the tie and a languishing in an internal claustrophobia. Or perhaps as a confrontation of agoraphobia’s more appropriate, ’cause much could be made of We Love Life’s extension of nature as metaphor for outsider, nature as the ultimate inevitable that must destroy all things by a creeping evolutionary superiority. Or at least, that’s one way to read “Weeds II (The Origin of the Species).” Pulp are still outsiders, see, but now they’re spreading to the outdoors.
For We Love Life, Jarvis Cocker and company lured legendary recluse (and equally legendarily adventurous songwriter/auteur) Scott Walker into the studio to produce. The result is a sound that’s less gushing, more restrained; sparser yet conjuring more. Cocker’s still cheeky, still dramatically breathy, but he’s peeled away seven or eight layers of smarm and sarcasm and actually sings it like he means it. (And, looking back on Different Class-era irony-histrionics, it all was a bit embarrassing now, wasn’t it?) The music still glitters, but it’s twilight, not disco ball.
Concerned less with style than substance, now content to make the willfully arty music they’ve always made outside the context of a mad gold rush, Pulp has learned many lessons in survival and craft from obvious forebears, the Stranglers. Heck, “Wickerman,” the album’s centerpiece, even takes us down in the sewers. It’s a haunting confrontation of the main character’s past (Cocker’s, presumably), choking industrialization and secret lives led by people who made the choices necessary to get the hell outta Dodge.
We Love Life is a Sunday-afternoon album that’ll probably age quite well. (If, indeed, it finds any audience at all here, for it’s difficult to imagine this record getting a groundswell of support in the indie-music trade of gimmickry and tidal trend ebbs and flows). We Love Life doesn’t shuck and jive to get your attention, but it does get under your skin. Or, rather, it slips into the cracks in the pavement.
E-mail Chris Handyside at firstname.lastname@example.org.