Jarvis Cocker, lead singer and head rake of the British band Pulp, gives good entrance. That’s not just a reference to the time in 1996 when he leapt on stage at London’s Brit Awards, interrupting yet another messianic production number by Michael Jackson. Cocker also writes some of the best openers in pop: ”I am not Jesus, ‘though I have the same initials,” goes the first line of ”Dishes” on This Is Hardcore, the follow-up to Pulp’s justly celebrated ‘96 album Different Class. Or take the opening salvo in ”TV Movie”: ”Without you my life has become a hangover without end,” Cocker intones, ”a movie made for TV: bad dialogue, bad acting, no interest.”
What’s even more welcome about Cocker’s songs is that they don’t veer downhill after they begin. In the time since Different Class, with its Noel Coward-in-the-London-underground observations and witticisms, made Cocker a U.K. sensation, he’s apparently been working even harder at his craft. This Is Hardcore isn’t just a slew of smart opening lines but a series of alternately poignant and pungent vignettes about confused, desperate, or lonely people. The mildly self-loathing narrator of ”Seductive Barry” fantasizes about seducing the object of his obsession; ”A Little Soul” is written in the voice of a defeated husband who beats his wife and pleads with his son not to repeat Dad’s mistakes. Other characters are caught up in premillennial aimlessness: Indifferent to the future, they party their lives away, take too many drugs, and hesitate before committing to partners.
When Cocker writes what are presumably autobiographical lyrics, he’s no less piercing or clever. The wonderfully withering ”Like a Friend” finds him both repulsed by and attracted to a fake friend: ”You take up my time like some cheap magazine when I could’ve been learning something.” Leading into the refrain of ”The Fear,” he sings, ”You’re gonna like it, but not a lot, and the chorus goes like this.” Compared with the unimaginative language that fills up far too many current pop or rock discs, Cocker’s lyrics — brought to life by his dry, jaundiced-dandy voice — are miniature literary salons unto themselves.
Luckily, smart rhymes aren’t the only things Pulp has to offer — the album is also an oasis of musicality. Different Class was a debauched update of vintage new-wave styles. This Is Hardcore is more expansive and more stylish than its predecessor, integrating sweeping string sections and such over-the-top, big-rock production touches as screechy choirs. ”Help the Aged,” Cocker’s surprisingly conciliatory ode to lessons gleaned from the elderly, deftly leaps from an after-hours fragility to a swooshing roar. The album’s peak, both lyrically and musically, may be ”Dishes,” in which Cocker attempts to comfort his mate after a hard day’s work. ”I’d like to make this water wine, but it’s impossible/I’ve got to get these dishes dry,” he sings, voice on the verge of cracking, as the music (a gently picked acoustic guitar solo over a swelling of strings) surges toward sublime cabaret-pop beauty.
It would be hard to argue that Pulp are utter originals. Cocker’s voice variously recalls the playboy decadence of Bryan Ferry, the croaky deadpan of Leonard Cohen, or the high-strung edge of vintage David Bowie. (”Party Hard” is the sinewy rocker Bowie has been so desperately trying to write again in recent years.) This Is Hardcore sometimes has the feel of a pop encyclopedia on disc; ”A Little Soul” cops a lick from the Miracles’ ”Tracks of My Tears,” while the rock-pomp touches on other tracks are a nod to the most theatrical side of the Kinks. Thankfully, none of it approaches Oasis’ most shameless pilfering, partly because the references are subtler and partly because Cocker is nothing if not of his time.
Well, okay: Pulp do share something with Oasis. Each has a song on their latest album with a refrain about life getting ”better.” Oasis’ is a mere Beatles cop, but Pulp want to say something important. This Is Hardcore is meant to be Jarvis’ statesmanlike comment on the world and the youth of today. He isn’t entirely successful; the grander statements toward the album’s end are vaguer and less satisfying than his story-songs, and the music grows bloated as well. Still, you have to love him for his ambitions. Even in the course of one of those less focused tracks, Cocker manages to use the words rave, cholesterol, and Bergerac. Tucked away in the liner notes is an odd little request: ”Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings.” Sorry, Jarvis — sometimes it just can’t be helped. A-