Music Box: Pulp’s “This Is Hardcore”

Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, released in 1998, is a testament of anxiety in our culture, the diary of someone failing at life despite having success, a war report from the front of unsuccessfully battling to fill the void. Pulp, the Britpop band that had been releasing albums for over 10 years before suddenly having enormous success, published this album three years after Disco 2000 was an international hit and the fallout was wearing them down. Artistically I consider this album their masterpiece, despite its flaws. It’s a bit messy, untrimmed and unfocused at times, but when it hits its mark, it goes straight for the kill. It’s unflinching and bitter and cynical but always with a certain sense of humor and full of brutal honesty. And it’s brilliant. You might feel uneasy and slightly embarrassed while listening to it, but you might also get an idea of an artist struggling with life in this culture, but never stopping from telling us about it.

This Is HardcoreThe first track The Fear is basically the theme song for the album. It describes the feeling of utter anxiety, of not being able to move or talk or think without fear, of being lonely, of struggling with sanity and reason, of the incapability to pretend everything’s okay, of being disillusioned, of being completely naked and vulnerable and without any protection. And all of it with a slight sense of irony and gallows humor.

This is our music from the bachelor’s den;
the sound of loneliness turned up to ten;
a horror soundtrack, from a stagnant waterbed
and it sounds just like this

This is the sound of someone losing the plot
making out that they’re ok when they’re not
You’re gonna like it but not a lot
and the chorus goes like this

oh baby here comes the fear again
the end is near again
a monkey’s built a house on your back;
you can’t get anyone to come in the sack
and here comes another panic attack oh
here we go again

[…]

and when you’re no longer searching for beauty or love
just some kind of life with the edges taken off
when you can’t even define what it is that you are frightened of
this song will be here

Dishes starts with Jarvis Cocker’s brilliant lines:

I am not Jesus though I have the same initials –
I am the man who stays home and does the dishes.

It’s a song about having all the necessary standards of a “normal life” – being married, household chores, being there for each other, telling each other comfort phrases – but still never being completely happy and always feeling this terrible void.

Party Hard is an observation of a woman who doesn’t seem to enjoy the incredible party around her, making the narrator wonder Why do we have to half kill ourselves just to prove we’re alive? He does obviously not like her, but because he is stuck in the same pattern, the last lines show his pathetic dilemma:

And do you really want to know
just how come you turned out so dumb?
When the party’s over will you come home with me?

What causes lot of anxiety for people in our culture? Growing old! In Dishes the line A man told me to beware of 33 made me smile now, since I’m 33 and, well, anyway, Help the Aged is kind of comedic but the bitterness shines through. Seeing how your body changes, facing the thought of death, wondering if your life was really worthwhile. But asking those questions in your mid-30s is also a sign of how desperate this culture makes us.

The title track of the album is sleazy and dirty and desperate. It’s about sex, the phrases that are used to get it, the porn ideology of simply getting to the point of fucking without any real feelings. But as everything else on the album, the spark is gone, everything seems tired and worn out, all these expressions sound even more shallow than they are in the first place, and the music adds to that, with that slow moving percussion and the horns. And look at those lines:

This is the eye of the storm.
It’s what men in stained raincoats pay for
but in here it is pure. Yeah.
This is the end of the line.
I’ve seen the storyline played out so many times before.

Oh, that goes in there.
Then that goes in there.
Then that goes in there.
Then that goes in there.
And then it’s over.

You have to be brilliant to write something as hard boiled and brutal as this and capture the sad spirit of pointless sex just for the sake of it. Seeing Jarvis Cocker dancing accordingly in the accompanying great video just tops it off. This is my second highlight on this album after The Fear.

This Is Hardcore - JarvisTV Movie is a break-up song but rarely has heartache sounded so bitter and weary. It’s clear that the lost partner symbolizes everything that’s wrong in this life, which is now full of pain and boredom. The desperation is so explicit, the need for someone to make things better. And again, the writing couldn’t be more spot on and gut-wrenching that in those opening lines

Without you my life has become a hangover without end.
A movie made for TV: bad dialogue,
bad acting, no interest.
Too long with no story & no sex.

A Little Soul sounds like a bar conversation between father and son, exchanging stories of bad marriages. Two men mistreating their women, but with all the right intentions and no lessons learned. It’s heartbreaking how the father tells his son,

I’d love to help you but everybody’s telling me you look like me
but please don’t turn out like me.

Especially since the opening of the song makes clear that it’s too late for that already. The circle of mistreatment just keeps on circling.

I’m a Man gets over with all the machismo clichés and is probably the most outspoken song, wondering what the point is of all the things men are supposed to do and how they are supposed to act. It also points out how we’re stuck in those rules and expectations, trying to fit in, even if it makes us sick.

So please can I ask just why we’re alive.
When all that you do seems such a waste of time.
And if you hang around too long you’ll be a man.
Tell me about it.
Your car can go up to one hundred and ten.
You’ve nowhere to go but you’ll go there again.
And nothing makes a difference to a man.

Seductive Barry is more depressing fake sex for money, Sylvia is the story of a girl who got mistreated by life. Glory Days and The Day After the Revolution end the album by summarizing and reminiscing the past to see how much time was wasted, how little was achieved and how hopeless things seem now. Drugs, alcohol, sex, parties, procrastination, disillusion and the hopeless hope that maybe there was a point to all of this.

Yeah we’d love to hear your story
just as long as it tells us where we are –
that where we are is where we’re meant to be.

But the last song makes clear that nothing was achieved. The hopes were high, but ultimately everyone was to busy with themselves to change anything in the world. The supposed “revolution” sounds like the apocalypse here.

They say the future’s beginning tonight
Whole empires will crumble
Civilizations will fall
Lie on the bed, hear the sound of it all

Any justice for anyone? Do the scales tip back?

Because the meek shall inherit absolutely nothing at all
If you stopped being so feeble, you could have so much more

No, just arrogance and ignorance. And now?

Yeah, we made it.
Just by the skin of our teeth.
Perfection is over
(The Rave is over)
Sheffield is over.
The Fear is over.
Guilt is over
(Please leave the building quietly)
Bergerac is over.
The hangover is over
Men are over
Women are over.
Cholesterol is over.
Tapers are over.
Irony is over.
Bye Bye

What a way to end an album, with the end of everything. This is a brilliant piece of music, unforgiving and merciless. It’s the bitter taste in our mouths after the party, that is our culture, has ended.

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