Twenty years ago, 'This Is Hardcore' took Britpop big-hitters Pulp down an altogether darker path - here's why it was the definitive album of the post-Britpop era.
By 1997, the cannier Britpoppers were firing up their exit strategies. As every pop act in history has discovered, feel-good accessibility has a short shelf-life and longevity only comes with striking more adult-friendly notes – wearing a suit in a video featuring forlorn ballroom dancers for men, taking more clothes off for women. Radiohead and The Verve called time on the Britpop party with ‘OK Computer’ and ‘Urban Hymns’ respectively, and the main players were prepared. Blur had already gone a bit grunge and started making nudge-nudge hints about heroin on their self-titled 1997 album, but wouldn’t go full Yorke until 1999’s ‘13’. Pulp, meanwhile, decided the way forward was to go full Stringfellow.
Though Blur and Oasis were the scene titans, Pulp’s ‘Different Class’ had come to define Britpop, with its effervescent vignettes of seedy sex, medium-grade drug-taking, working class righteousness, nostalgic teen ennui, generational awakening and more seedy sex. Despite Jarvis Cocker’s acrylic preening, there was no artifice or attitude here; if anything, tracks like ‘Mis-Shapes’, ‘I Spy’, ‘Sorted For E’s & Whizz’ and Common People’ were brutally, shamelessly honest about the cynical and hedonistic surface motivations of 90s youth culture. So when they returned in ’98 with an album riven with paranoia, self-pity and porno perversion, it was the surest sign yet that the decadent decade had turned sour.
‘Blur’ was purposefully obtuse about the drugs and darkness eating at Damon’s soul. ‘Be Here Now’ was a pompous, meaningless post-peak mess. ‘OK Computer’ hid its political technofear beneath onion layers of metaphor and electronic impressionism. ‘Urban Hymns’ was a bold, bombastic and brilliantly delivered list of fairly trite self-help platitudes. Of the late-90s big-hitters, only ‘This Is Hardcore’ tackled the issues of a scene in collapse head-on, and thereby defined the end of the century far more clearly and concisely than any of Damon’s cartoon character studies or Thom’s Gucci piggies.
The record declared the end of the party with its opening track. ‘The Fear’ was a slab of creeping glam paranoia that encapsulated the post-Britpop comedown, crawling through the wreckage wracked with cocaine psychosis, “the sound of loneliness turned up to ten… the sound of someone losing the plot”. “Here comes the fear again,” Jarvis howled, a vein-scratching mess listing the latest indie star accoutrements: “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”. If any song summed up the mental and emotional state of indie music, its fans and practitioners in 1998, it was ‘The Fear’.
From there ‘This Is Hardcore’ delved ever further into the mentality of the Comedown King. The Bowie-cranky ‘Party Hard’ sounded (knowingly) driven by desperation to keep the fading vibe alive – “I was having a whale of a time until your Uncle Psychosis arrived,” Jarv admitted, and made a plea for humanity amongst the 90s’ out-of-control dervish of hedonism: “when the party’s over, will you come home to me?” The Tinderstick-ish ‘Dishes’ captured the morning-after shuffle around the ruined bedsit and the rousing-if-rheumatic ‘Help The Aged’ was Jarvis – with a good ten years in the game over his Britpop peers – publicly realising that maybe we were too fucking old for this shit already. “Funny how it all falls away”, indeed.
At its sordid centre, the title track (and it’s psych-dub sister-piece ‘Seductive Barry’) dominated the mood of the record – and the times – with its sleazy, drooling horns and strip-club atmospherics, reflecting the inexorable slide of high-life hedonism into base, shallow lust. Jarvis would later claim that Britpop “ended up being slightly overweight men with their shirts untucked, getting sucked off while watching The Italian Job”; this was his attempt at a soundtrack.
‘This Is Hardcore’ hinted at a heart with the gorgeous country twangs of ‘A Little Soul’ and built to a trio of reflective Pulp barnstormers – ‘Sylvia’, ‘Glory Days’ and the ultra-bombastic ‘The Day After The Revolution’. By being largely mid-paced and drenched in cinematic easy listening vibes, so honest about the bad times and nostalgic for the good, this was virtually Pulp admitting their time had come and gone. But that’s surely the mark of the greatest of artists, to reflect their times so resolutely and not give an arse-waggle for the consequences. That really is hardcore.