Which Pulp album are you? The voyeur? The disco king? The rubber lover? Or the, um, landscape gardener? Whichever, the chances are you’re unlikely to be the obscurist 80s indie weirdo, since Pulp had arguably the strangest career path in modern pop. Most bands bang out one hype-gobbling debut album, another one pretty much the same but with more moaning about British Airways legroom on it, a third that tries to go dubstep on kazoos and they’re back on the bins by twenty-four. Some make progressively more legendary albums until one day they find themselves taking tea with Nelson Mandela and they instantly turn shit for a decade or so. But very few piss about being a freaky Felt for FIFTEEN YEARS before discovering their inner synth-pop sex Pepperami and making millions.
So all hail Pulp, pop’s latest ever developers. And here’s the order I’d shag them in. Alraaaight?
1. ‘Different Class’
Different League, more like. A rare example of the virtually perfect modern pop record, ‘Different Class’ saw Pulp snatch Britpop from under the feuding noses of Blur and Oasis and run off laughing into The Future. If Geek Power anthem ‘Mis-Shapes’ provided the bridge from Pulp’s previous outsider aesthetic, the record soon staged a march on the mainstream: ‘Disco 2000’ and ‘Common People’ were pure aural MDMA and ‘Sorted For E’s And Whizz’ became the ballad of a generation tweaking from rave’s dodgy-dove’d comedown. But there was also an edgy danger to ‘I Spy’ and ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.’ and a new peak of arching, aching emotional desolation to ‘Underwear’ and ‘Bar Italia’. A master ‘…Class’.
2. ‘His ‘N’ Hers’
The belated coming of age, ‘His’N’Hers’ fizzed and crackled with the excitement of a band whose time has finally come. Though they’d been around for fifteen years, Pulp were relatively unknown beyond the C86 underground on its release, so much of its seedy allure came from the suspicion that a band singing about lost virginity (‘Do You Remember The First Time?’), peeping toms (‘Babies’), fetishism (‘Pink Glove’) and murdered girls (‘Joyriders’) might well have a couple of restraining orders or grace the odd register. Today, though, knowing them for the charming botty-wagglers they are, we can appreciate it for the glitter cannon blast of kitchen sink romance, amateurish voyeurism and awkward sex in static-inducing fabrics that it is. And ‘Have You Seen Her Lately?’ as un-arguably their great ‘lost’ classic.
3. ‘This Is Hardcore’
Three years on from ‘Different Class’ and Jarvis was in the grip of drug flashbacks (‘The Fear’), encroaching middle age (‘Help The Aged’) and an uncharacteristic cynicism towards pornography (the title track). Pulp’s pop sensibility was still sharp as a slasher’s scalpel but ‘This Is Hardcore’ was doused in disillusionment and desperation; Jarvis sounded broken and whispy and the porno horns, Bond strings, C&W tinges and bleak atmospherics created a downbeat, defeated vortex whose gravity the closing rush of ‘Sylvia’, ‘Glory Days’ and ‘The Day After The Revolution’ struggled to escape. A melodic masterstroke, but so damn heavy.
4. ‘We Love Life’
In which Jarvis and co swapped the gimp mask and cat-o’-nine-tails for the bedding trowel and border trimmer. Stripping naked and rolling around in the geraniums, Pulp (and producer Scott Walker) found a new joy in nature – in ‘The Birds In Your Garden’, ‘The Trees’ and even the humble ‘Weeds’ – that gave their seventh album a more uplifting air and filled Pulp classics like ‘The Night That Minnie Timperley Died’ and ‘Bad Cover Version’ with the elation of wide horizons and the panoramic wilds. Unfortunately, as a concept, it was about as sexy as rimming Alan Titchmarsh.
A bit OMD, a bit PSB, a bit Guy Called Gerald, ‘Separations’ was where Jarvis found his voice and Pulp their synthetic stimulus. A pioneering attempt to fuse indie and acid house, recorded in 1989 but not released until 1992, it was sadly lapped by the zeitgeist in the meantime: the recording of ‘Love Is Blind’ might have pre-dated OMD’s ‘Sailing On The Seven Seas’ in terms of pounding alt.pop but otherwise Side One forged on into electro-indie realms already well-trodden by Electronic and its disco biscuit-enhanced second half, although largely ‘cracking’, had the misfortune of being released a year after ‘Screamadelica’. Nonetheless, the promise of ‘His’N’Hers’ blazed out through the Arab swing of ‘She’s Dead’, the Bad Seeds sedition of ‘Down By The River’ and the sordid spangle of ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’, while the rave-friendly ‘This House Is Condemned’ gave S‘Xpress something to get the hots for.
A floaty, flirty and occasionally flutey amalgam of Smiths jangle and whimsical psychedelic pop, ‘It’ is far more endearing and assured than it deserves to be. Jarvis’s voice is richer than his clunky warbles on ‘Freaks’ and for all the inadvisable echoes of Johnny Hates Jazz and Spandau Ballet it oozes a raw acoustic charm, invents The Magnetic Fields on ‘Looking For Life’ and is undoubtedly the most melodically consistent Pulp album of the 80s. I.e., it doesn’t have Russell Senior snarling about two-headed cats all over it like something out of a Sheffield Psychoville.
‘Freaks’, as the title suggests, is a jarring, confrontational, terrifying oddity. Corpses, mutant cats, eight-legged dogs and fish-eyed foetuses abound. Jarvis sings like he’s undead. ‘Fairground’ resembles being trapped in a Satanic circus with a bunch of deformed, psychopathic Yorkshire Tindersticks. ‘Being Followed Home’ feels like being stalked by a deranged Lee Hazelwood. ‘Masters Of The Universe’ – the single remember – sounds like it was recorded by a band of goth gypsies while bungee jumping. ‘Anorexic Beauty’ is like being mugged in an alleyway by The Kinks. It’s an (intentionally) unlovable album, but even here, lurking between the skewed carnival curios, ‘Life Must Be Wonderful’, ‘There’s No Emotion’ and ‘I Want You’ points to tungsten-bright torch songs to come.