Saturday, July 5, 2008
We Love Life
by Simon Reynolds
This is essentially Pulp's make-or-break record in terms of them remaining any kind of mainstream pop force. After the sales shortfall of This Is Hardcore, their career arc would logically point towards settling into a sort of Lukes Haines-level culthood: literate, mordant pop that reaps critical acclaim for its probing of England's seamy underbelly. But this would be settling for less: there's clearly a populist streak to Jarvis Cocker, a rabble-rousing, Everyman-championing impulse evident in the anthemic-ness of "Mis-Shapes" and "Common People," and his thrilling disruption of Michael Jackson at the Brits.
Pulp are the kind of group whose music is somehow massively enhanced by massive popularity, and arguably diminished in corresponding proportions by its absence. So the choice of Scott Walker as producer of their comeback--while sure to make hipster sorts like myself moisten their underpants with excitement--is not terribly auspicious. Walker, after all, is the heart-throb crooner who whittled away his Sixties fame with four brilliantly pretentious solo albums, and whose sole recording of the last decade was the ultra-abstruse Tilt. While We Love Life never approaches the forbidding orchestral density of that album, there is a Scott-like grandeur in the sheer size of the sound. And words-wise it's almost like Cocker's ratcheted up the ambitiousness levels to match the producer's visionary lyrical scope.
Nowhere is that more apparent than with the opening two-song suite of "Weeds" and "Weeds II (Origin of the Species)". As mulch-for-metaphor, gardening goes to the core of Englishness--Gardener's Question Time, landscape gardening at stately homes, allotments, the garden city movement. Even in pop, it's got potent resonances: the image of youth as "flowers in the dustbin" in the Pistols's "God Save the Queen," Flowered Up. "Weeds" is essentially a rewrite of "Mis-Shapes", replacing the first song's imagery of broken biscuits with the renegade plants that every gardener fears, and that for Cocker symbolize the underclass as the enemy within Albion's green and pleasant land. Set to a majestic lumber that recalls Led Zep's "Kashmir", the song vaguely heralds some kind of vengeance for this vegetable proletariat.
"Origin of the Species" shifts up several gears in terms of complexity and provocation. Musically, it's a breathtaking panorama of symphonic funk, full of eerie spaces and soaring clusters of backing harmony. Lyrically, it transforms the insights of "Common People" about class tourists and slumming voyeurs into a grand indictment of the way the music industry operates: picking up on underclass innovations in style and expression, then mass-marketing them to a middle class audience eager for a controlled dose of life on the edge. Cocker brilliantly sustains the gardening imagery (cuttings, hothouses, poor soil, exotic strains, "very short flowering seasons", first bloomings swiftly followed by decay) but then almost overloads this perilously extended metaphor by introducing the other connotations of "weed", as drug: "growing wild then harvested in their prime", and proffered at dinner parties as "a sensational buzz". But a searing rage surfaces through this elegant allegory, in lines like "take a photo of life in the margins... then get a taxi home" or the parodied condescension of "c'mon do your funny little dance." For clearly Jarvis feels this is how he's treated: as a pet freak.
The two "Weeds" are just the start of a thread of imagery relating to flora and fauna, the English countryside, Nature as despoiled yet resilient and renewing. "The Trees" starts with the stop-you-in-your-tracks image of the protagonist shooting a magpie to the ground with an air rifle---an appropriate one-for-sorrow kick-off to a song about a dead love affair. It's a lyrical tour-de-force that risks absurdity but achieves a sort of Nick-Cave-aping-Jimmy-Webb pathos, from the heavy-hearted sigh of the chorus ("those useless trees/produce the air that I am breathing... those useless trees/they never said that you were leaving") to the lines "the smell of leaf mold and the sweetness of decay/are the incense at the funeral procession here today." The music is stunning, driven by a Walker-esque orchestral riff borrowed from a Sixties spy-movie soundtrack and encompassing an exquisitely forlorn electric organ solo that's pure Robert Wyatt.
Eight minutes long, "Wickerman" is the album's centrepiece: it's about a real river that flows underneath Sheffield, channelled through "dirty brickwork conduits." Cocker's lyrics make me think of John Cooper Clarke's "Beasley Street" or Morrissey's "river/ the color of lead." This is a stream of memory that carries Jarvis back to moments in love, like a first kiss in a shabby cafe where outside "a child's toy horse ride... played such a ridiculously tragic tune." This girl is a composite of lost lovers: he recalls another riverbank vignette, "except you were somebody else". The river is also a witness, a Cocker-like observer of ordinary lives, flowing beneath "pensioners gathering dust like bowls of plastic tulips" and passing an old sweets factory that burned down decades ago leaving "caverns of nougat and caramel." Finally, the river is also some kind of life-force, the polluted pulse of a bygone England, distorted by industrialisation yet indomitable. Jarvis imagines following its course all the way through and surfacing "surrounded by grass and trees". Like Neil Young, he knows he'll find "her" there.
We Love Life has its share of songs that don't quite make it.. The obscurely titled "Bob Lind" is a semi-acoustic shimmer that recalls Felt or the Byrds, but lyrically it's an autopilot effort, about admitting you're a fuck-up as the only honest basis for real love. Narratively opaque and vocally strained, "The Night Minnie Timperly Died" seems like a botched anthem. And I still don't know what to make of "Birds In Your Garden," an acoustic guitar ballad adorned with simulated bird-song and a recorder. The song seems to want to be this album's "Something Changed", but the lyrics are just the wrong side of daft: two estranged lovers lie in bed, together but alone, until the dawn chorus tells the man to shag-and-make-up before it's too late. The final lines, in which Cocker confesses that "the birds in your garden... taught me the words to this song" are the glace cherry on top of a very sickly cake. An atrocity against good taste, for sure, yet there's a sort of corny majesty that recalls "Seasons In The Sun". Conversely, "I Love Life" is hard-to-stomach for its sourness. From the limping beat to Cocker's bile-choked, decrepit vocal, the song seems ready for the knacker's yard. Persevere, though, and this poisoned ballad suddenly surges off with the idiot energy of early Roxy, Cocker howling from the gut like primal-scream Lennon.
We Love Life lunges for greatness in its final stretch. "Bad Cover Version" goes for the Yiddish Grand Slam--kitsch, shlock, schmaltz, and chintz. With its massed backing harmonies and Three Degrees-like bells, it seems to come from the same rank cleft in UK pop meMORy that contains golden moldies like Brotherhood of Man and Paper Lace. Listening, you can visualize the BBC light entertainment orchestra: musicians with their kipper ties and headphones, the white-suited and baton-waving bandleader with his blatant toupee and smarmy grin. The words are some of Cocker's wittiest, flipping the old Who "substitute for another guy" idea and making Jarvis the definitive original and his replacement the fake whose kiss tastes of saccharine. The song goes out with a list of gone-to-crap pop artefacts like the later Tom & Jerry cartoons, the Stones post-1980, and, rather cheekily, the disappointing side two of Til the Band Comes In by Scott Walker.
"Road Kill" is all slow building grandeur a la "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", cymbal-smashes like sea-spray in slow-motion, up-swirling spires of sound. It's about another doomed love, heralded by the ghastly portent of a deer struck down and "dying in the road". Cocker sifts through precious memories, images like scars on his mind's eye: "all these things I see... though I don't see you anymore".
Finally, "Sunrise" recalls Sixties balladeer Tim Rose, who specialized in a sort of anti-heroic grandeur. Likewise Cocker's protagonist hates the sun because its glare starkly illuminates his mountainous failures. If the clever-clever self-deprecation of lines about overfilling "the ashtray of my life" or how "my achievements in days of yore/range from pathetic to piss-poor" lean towards bathos rather than tragedy, everything changes with the shooting-star chorus and its sudden heart-rush of confidence that any life, however fucked, can be transformed. With its angelic choir nodding to "You Can't Always Get What You Want", the stratospheric-drive of the song's final minutes is the essential ascension after an album of largely unrelieved gloom.
Whether We Love Life restores Pulp to the centre of UK pop culture or not (and I fear the bizarre contours of Cocker's lyrical imagination might be hard for punters to get their heads around), this record has achieved the sort of freestanding quality and distinction that ultimately makes popular impact irrelevant. Two or three of the songs I'd put right up there alongside their producer at his most godlike genius-like, "Plastic Palace People" or "Boy Child". There's no higher praise.