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Pulp: We Love Life

By Brad Quinn · November 21st, 2001 · CD of the Week

It's a well-known story, at least in the UK, but as it's the stuff of heroes, it's worth repeating. In 1996 at the Brit Awards, England's equivalent to the Grammies, King-of-Pop Michael Jackson was joined onstage by Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker during a performance of Jackson's current hit "Earthsong." Cocker, however, had not been invited.

Disgusted by what he saw as Jackson's deification of himself in performance, Cocker hopped onstage, tugged down his trousers and mooned the master of the moonwalk. (It should be noted that Bubbles the Chimp's main man was clad in dazzling white and was striking a crucifixion pose while awe-struck children gathered at his feet.) For his efforts, the Pulp singer was arrested, though he was later released and charges were dropped.

All of this has nothing much to do with Pulp's new album, We Love Life, other than to set up Jarvis Cocker as a man worthy of our deepest admiration. I'm also happy to report that We Love Life does nothing to diminish Cocker's reputation as a top-rate tunesmith. We Love Life is every bit as melodically satisfying and lyrically clever as Pulp's best albums, Different Class and This Is Hardcore.

Although you can't tell from the finished product, We Love Life had a troubled recording history. Sessions for the album originally began with producer Chris Thomas, who recorded This Is Hardcore and Different Class with stellar results. These sessions were scrapped, however, and Pulp made a surprising but inspired choice by bringing in singer Scott Walker as producer.

Walker was a huge pop star in England in the mid-'60s with the Walker Brothers ("The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore"), but by the end of the decade he had pretty much done all he could to diminish his celebrity with a series of brilliant, though un-commercial and idiosyncratic, solo albums.

It turns out that Walker is a perfect choice to produce Pulp. Walker adds some lovely choral and orchestral flourishes, and is, I suspect, responsible for the album's overall density of sound. Yet his contribution in no way overwhelms the project, as can happen with a producer of such distinct musical approach (e.g. Rundgren, Spector).

Of course there are high expectations when bringing in a producer of Walker's unique musical vision. And as one would hope, We Love Life is bold in approach, though probably no more so than the hour-long booze and sex come down of This Is Hardcore. We Love Life is nothing so pretentious as a concept album, but it is, like This is Hardcore and Different Class, a thematically unified effort.

The album opens with the companion cuts "Weeds" and "Weeds II (The Origin of the Species)." With its simple guitar riff and martial snare drumming, "Weeds" is a counterculture call to arms, an exodus of the freaks. That the chorus melody is lifted from the Christmas carol "O Come All Ye Faithful" (Also the goldmine from which Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" was excavated) ends up being only mildly disheartening. The song is saved by an unexpected chord change/melodic shift and the "Sgt. Pepper's" like coda of "We'd like to get you out of your mind."

"Weeds II" recalls the erotic trippiness of This is Hardcore. Over ethereal background vocals, electronic bleats and electric piano, Cocker narrates the story of the weeds, a tale of life on the margins of consumer culture. The song reaches its peak as the singer offers, "Care for some weed? So natural, so wild, so unrefined."

Apart from the metaphorical monkey business about "weeds" as the underclass, the album's first two tracks are also, of course, about getting high.

Track three, however, has nothing at all to do with getting high. In stark contrast, "The Night That Minnie Timperley Died" is a creepy William Trevor-goes-Top-of-the-Pops kind of thing. Maybe this should have been the album's first single. It has a nice melody and it's about abduction and murder, which, if I'm not mistaken, is still pretty hip with the kids. However, the song may lack the requisite bravado for a climb up the charts.

On "The Trees," which is the album's first single release, Pulp returns to the green world of the opening tracks. And here the lush production is the most suggestive of a Scott Walker recording. Syncopated strings give the song a buoyant gait in the verse, but in the chorus the same rhythm glides with the addition of soaring background vocals, the wash of a steady ride cymbal, and an unidentifiable electronic drone. Some very nice keyboard soloing is heard here also, for those who like that sort of thing.

"Wickerman" is a long, minor key narrative with haunting glass harmonica and Spaghetti Western-style electric guitar. Mostly spoken, the song re-iterates what Pulp fans have known for a long time: a Jarvis Cocker lyric sheet is almost as enjoyable to read as it is to listen to. It's always tempting to give our finer song lyricist the status of poet -- as if that's a step up -- and in the case of Jarvis Cocker, I wouldn't disagree.

Clean, dissonant electric guitar a la Pavement or The Pixies opens "I Love Life." The miracle of this fine song is that no matter how discordant the accompanying track becomes, the song remains irresistibly melodic. It's songs like this that keep a listener on his toes. It's a hit. OK, maybe if it were 1966.

"Birds in Your Garden" is typical Pulp. Sonically a grab-bag of pop music motifs: jangly guitar and flutes, a fuzz box, '80s synths, Brothers Gibb-style background vox (circa Bee Gees First) and a girl-group melody worthy of the Shangri-Las. This one sticks in your head.

Pulp probably has some of the most intriguing song titles this side of Morrissey and Smiths. "Bob Lind (The Only Way Is Down)" doesn't quite live up to its title lyrically, but it's a fine tune nonetheless. What's most interesting, however, is the giant, rumbling keyboard part that always makes me think that a garbage truck has just pulled into my driveway.

I had every intention of writing a song-by-song review of the album, but I'm tired of thinking about it and there's only three songs left anyway. Besides, if you're that damn interested in it then you should just go buy the thing. It's a great record. And even better, it's only November and we already have an album-of-the-year contender.



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