A year after Blur rang the bell for last orders with the Pavement-influenced ‘Blur’, Pulp brought the Britpop party to a juddering halt with ‘This is Hardcore’, the bleakest of flipsides to ‘A Different Class’ and the record that saw them – intentionally or not – shooting themselves in the foot. Although it made No.1, it had nowhere near the staying power nor mainstream reach of its predecessor. But in its sense of surrender, regret and flashes of panic, it captured the time to a tee.
Jarvis Cocker had achieved everything he wanted. The spokesman for a generation tag was on his lapel and huge fame was his, but it encircled him like a cloying trenchcoat, every fibre wanting a piece of him. ‘This Is Hardcore’, from the alienating sleeve to the epic sleazy title track, the incongruous lead single ‘Help The Aged’ to the litany at the close of ‘The Day After The Revolution’ (“the fear is over, the guilt is over… the breakdown is over“), is a sloughing-off of fame’s skin, a rejection of the Britpop monster. That monster could have been him, could have been the moribund wasteland around him.
It was time for Britpop to go, no doubt. With Blur long since headed for the hills, Oasis settling into creative torpor, and bands like Space, Catatonia, Shed Seven, The Bluetones and Kula Shaker (clinging on with a second album) toiling to sustain its second wave, Britpop was a faded brass-rubbing of itself. Even Robbie Williams was co-opting the scene’s tropes in a career then seemingly destined for the dustbin. That was alarming enough on its own. Time to tear it up and start again.
Pulp wouldn’t truly start again for another decade and Britpop would probably have dissipated without help as boybands swamped the domestic market and the US came back hard with a new generation, R&B displacing grunge on its visa. But a big grand folly of a scene deserved a big grand send-off – and ‘This Is Hardcore’ is nothing if it isn’t a statement.
Familiar, sentimental vignettes like ‘Disco 2000’ and ‘Sorted For E’s And Wizz’ seem eons away as ‘The Fear’ uncoils its horror-soundtrack synths and teetering, doomy chords. “This is the sound of someone losing the plot/Making out they’re OK when they are not,” is the first of reams of lines to pick over, apparently opening a window on Cocker’s little soul. The wails, the rattling – we’re on a ghost train and we’re going in!
Even Cocker’s razor wit feels blunted by doubt. ‘Dishes’ has fun – “I am not Jesus/Though I have the same initials” – but the joke’s punctured by the reality. Cocker’s wondering what the hell we expect from him. He can still swing his impossibly thin hips on the corking Bowie pastiche ‘Party Hard’ (surely the track that could’ve saved ‘Never Let Me Down’) and let go on oh-who-cares rock anthem ‘Glory Days’, but panic runs through the clever switches of ‘Help The Aged’ and the coal-black humour of the heavyweight title track’s too opaque for laughs.
When the lights come on, there’s the beautiful resignation of ‘A Little Soul’, where Cocker dons a character – his own father. The worry’s still there though. He can see himself in his dad after all. Or maybe his future? Cocker’s ripping into his own psyche to see if he can find anything he likes, but at least it sounds gorgeous.
If we’re really looking for light in this magnificent fug (and let’s gloss over lines like “If that’s all there is then there’s no point for me/So please can I ask just why we’re alive?“, we’ll have ‘I’m A Man’. This barrelling glam stomp is the most Britpop thing here, but only if Denim or even The Auteurs had led the charge. What a world we could’ve had, soaked in the 70s rather than the 60s, and rather fewer sharp threads all round. There’s yet another alternative in ‘Seductive Barry’ – it feels like an extended intro to Flowered Up’s ‘Weekender’, another possible source text for Britpop if Balearic influences had been allowed to invade all that parochialism.
But ‘This Is Hardcore’ isn’t about forks in the road. It’s an end, a hard-wrought epitaph to a band’s jaunt in the limelight and a suitable jump-off point for what had been a rare old few years – for us, at least. For Pulp and Cocker it was a sapping drag through the wringer. Drink up, please.