Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: Pulp – We Love Life

on May 01, 2010, 8:00am

The history of the legendary Britpop band Pulp is a tumultuous one marked by the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. After languishing in total obscurity for over a decade, Pulp finally received its first brush with mainstream success with its 1991 single “My Legendary Girlfriend”, steadily rising in popularity until finding bona fide superstardom in 1995 in the UK thanks to the anthemic “Common People” and a legendary performance at the Glastonbury Festival. The band’s popularity continued to skyrocket upon the subsequent release of Different Class, with Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker finally achieving the fame he sought for so long.

Unfortunately for Cocker, the celebrity he desired proved to be a burden, and his dissatisfaction with it, coupled with his personal demons that stemmed from drug addiction and a nervous breakdown, inspired the 1998 release, This Is Hardcore. Being an album that was too dark and experimental to pass as Britpop, Hardcore proved alienating for fans wanting another dance floor hit, despite moments of musical brilliance.  To produce their 2001 swansong We Love Life, Pulp recruited reclusive singer/songwriter Scott Walker, another outsider icon who found his moment in the spotlight distasteful.

We Love Life, in contrast to the bleak This Is Hardcore, is a reflective, life-affirming album about nature and the role it has in life.  Musically, previous trademark elements of Pulp’s sound such as Candida Doyle’s synths take a back seat to lush string sections, choirs, and chirping birds under Walker’s masterful direction, resulting in a more organic sound to compliment the theme of nature.  The willingness of Pulp to evolve musically from album to album, often drastically, is one of the characteristics that has elevated Pulp over Britpop pigeonholing and spared them from sounding dated like other bands from that era.

Lyrically, the record addresses nature in songs such as “The Trees” and “The Birds in Your Garden”. In “Garden”, Cocker is genuinely romantic in this love song about a narrator who can finally consummate his love after receiving reassurance from birds. Still a champion of the misshapes, mistakes, and misfits, Cocker sings about the refugee side of Britain’s underclass in “Weeds” as he compares them to the song’s namesake. On the evocative “Wickerman”, Walker sets the mood with cinematic string sections, while Cocker channels his inner Leonard Cohen with a touching, nearly spoken-word trip down memory lane that expresses fondness for a filthy, industrial river, and reflects his newfound peace and embracement of life despite its ups and downs.

Despite his apparent peace, Cocker is as merciless and scathing as ever lyrically. Not even Cocker’s own idol is spared as he likens the cover songs on the second side of Walker’s 1970 release ‘Til the Band Comes In to such travesties as the television adaptation of Planet of the Apes as he compares them to the current relationship of an old flame in “Bad Cover Version”. “Sunrise”, the closing track of We Love Life, paints the clearest picture of the evolution and maturation of Pulp.  A band renowned for its cleverly cynical lyrics ends it all on an optimistic as Cocker sings his final line “but you’ve been awake all night, so why should you crash out at dawn?”, followed by a powerfully invigorating three-and-a-half minute wall-of-noise crescendo, complete with a soaring choir.

Pulp is one of the rare bands to disband while still on the crest of their creative peak. If This Is Hardcore is “the sound of loneliness turned up to 10”, then We Love Life is the sound of a band finding peace with their turbulent past and the world at large and embracing life. Although largely overlooked upon its release, We Love Life remains a compelling farewell that stands as not only one of Pulp’s best works but also their most underrated.

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