Pulp released ‘This Is Hardcore’ 20 years ago today, and we were disappointed

Pulp, back in the day

Pulp, back in the day Press photo

This review originally appeared in the April 15, 1998 edition of City Pages.

If there's one thing the British have it's class. No, not style, class—the clear delineation of socioeconomic strata that our Great American Experiment supposedly eradicated through Gallup-driven democracy and extended credit limits.

On Pulp's 1996 breakthrough, Different Class, plebeian frontman Jarvis Cocker caught the eye of a posh college bird slumming for some lowlife action. She: “I want to sleep with common people like you.” He: “I'll see what I can do.” “Common People,” Cocker's bitchy denunciation of “tourists'”from a higher caste who “think that poor is cool,” whirled upward to a gleeful peak of chintzy synth, la-la-la's--and #2 on the U.K. charts. In the U.S. its class-consciousness was as indecipherably exotic as Tuvan throat-singing and a third as successful. After all, such an encounter could never happen here. Right?

Throughout Different Class, Cocker spiked glib bedroom farces with embittered class envy, rooting classically lusty pop superstructures in a material base. Broke but no bloke, vulgar but no Marxist, Cocker cherished the old motto that “nothing's too good for the working class.” And to prove the point, he appropriated Brian Ferry's aristocratic croon, a string of satisfied bedmates, and the genteel conjunction “whilst” from his social betters. Cocker desired the expensive sheets in which he lolled as much as he did the expensive wives therein, and he was convinced that his cleverness and fashion sense entitled him to both.

Never one to feel sympathetic for a pathetic simp, I take little comfort from Morrissey's more recent music-hall histrionics. But Cocker seems to understand the difference between affection and affectation. On This Is Hardcore he's determined to act his age. At 34, Cocker yearns to be a dirty old man, recasting the U.K. charity slogan “Help the Aged” into a touchingly desperate come-on. Mick Jagger should have the guts to implore, “It's time you took an older lover, bay-bay,” or, better yet, stutter, “You can't get away from your s-s-s-s-s-self” in such a yearning, hopeless falsetto. But the shift in Cocker's objects of desire from the wealthy to the young strips his hooks of their most enticing bait.

Since sex remains a spectator sport to Cocker, his idea of “hardcore” ain't no Ian MacKaye tribute. But his exhibitionist cravings now require the overworked trope of camera-as-voyeur. The porny title track is sensual enough to earn its “Bolero” rip, but Cocker's icky self-deprecation (“I can't believe it took me this long”) is an unappealing sexual position for this accomplished tumbler. Once ominously seductive, Cocker's creamy baritone curdles into an affected rumble, sloshing through dubious intonation on the anti-fun manifesto “Party Hard.” Yet, the song's dour put-down of girls who frequent discos (this from a man who once cheerily pillaged a riff from Laura Branigan's “Gloria'!) might seem less puritanical if you could dance to its Zooropean churn.

“The Fear” fares better, at least as camp, with Cocker making a grandiose psychic abyss out of an unwelcome bout with celibacy. Horror-show tremolo, trilled guitar, high-strung symphonics, and disembodied chorales add up to the orchestral maneuvers of a dork who believes “the end is near” because he “can't get anyone to come in the sack.” As if that isn't silly enough, Cocker crooks his finger menacingly our way. “Now you know the words to our song,” he whispers. “Pretty soon you'll all be singing along.” Yikes! It's a post-apocalyptic future where no one gets laid!

Let Radiohead's confused jeremiads bewail a dehumanized technocracy from which only costly effects pedals can preserve us. Both warmer and more genuinely frightened, Cocker invites the world to snuggle in his “stagnant water bed” and share a good cry. And Hardcore works best when it cuts its clever gloom with this kind of outreach. An ode to doing “Dishes” buttresses its arch opening line—“I am not Jesus, but I have the same initials”—by imagining a cozy foundation of mundane domesticity. “I'm not worried that I will never touch the stars,” Cocker sighs, ''cause stars belong up in heaven and the earth is where we are.” It's unsettling to hear him settle for so little. But when he sings, “Aren't you happy just to be alive?” it's as luverly as the Kinks' “Waterloo Sunset.” You'd almost think he formerly enlisted in the class wars because (sniff) no one ever really loved him.

And why shouldn't Jarvis Cocker want to be loved? He is just a pop star, no more obligated to puzzle the dialectic between sex and commerce than the Spice Girls. But he is obligated to craft a persona that does justice to his wit, and a cunning lad screwing his way into the upper echelon is simply more entertaining than a middle-aged orgasm addict whose right knee jerks toward sarcasm while his left jerks toward sentimentality.

I'm hoping he'll outgrow his maturity. But for now Cocker's learned his lessons: Aging is tragic, compromise is inevitable, sex is sordid. And class is dismissed.