Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 36)
There’s a telling moment that comes near the end of This is Hardcore
’s lead single “Help the Aged”. After building the bridge towards a climax, the song approaches the moment Jarvis Cocker is clearly supposed to hit the songs big note and send the whole song rocketing into the last chorus. Instead he chops the word to bits, “Your se-se-se-se-se-se-se-sellooooh!
” he cries, and single handedly destroys the song’s momentum and sends it limping into the final chorus. The moment is emblematic of This is Hardcore
, which is not commercial suicide but commercial sabotage. Cocker spends the duration of the album limiting his commercial appeal as much as possible in order to regress from the epic success of Different Class
back to a cult following. “You’re gunna like it, but not a lot,” Cocker sings to his pop audience on opener “The Fear”. While This is Hardcore
is far more challenging than its predecessor it’s just as rewarding, a harrowing look at what happens when the cameras cut off and the stars go home alone.
Jarvis Cocker spent Christmas 1996 alone at the Paramount Hotel in New York. Cocaine had ripped through the Britpop scene and Cocker wasn’t exempt as rumors began to fly about his supposed heroin usage. By this point, Pulp wasn’t the same band they were a few years ago. Russell Senior left upon Cocker’s return from New York, explaining “it wasn’t creatively rewarding to be in Pulp anymore.” When This is Hardcore
was released in March 1998 it was heralded as commercial suicide and sold a small fraction what its predecessor did with only one of its singles making the top 10.
Listening to it now, this sounds intentional. This is Hardcore
obscures it’s pop thrills, but they are there, they just aren’t half as obvious as they were on Different Class
. Perhaps the most difficult thing about This is Hardcore
is it’s deeply sad, not the kind of sadness that comes with a few missteps, but a lifetime of them. On the brutally sad album highlight “A Little Soul” Cocker sings from the role of a failed father begging his son not to turn out like he did. “I've got no wisdom that I want to pass on/Just don't hang round here, no, I'm telling you son/You don't want to know me.” Perversely enough, its also one of the albums catchiest songs. “TV Movie” begins with Cocker comparing his new bachlor life with to “a movie made for TV/bad dialogue, bad acting, no interest” and climaxes with Cocker hitting his own version of rock bottom, “I know it must be bad 'cos sitting here right now/all I know is I can't even think/I can't even think of anything clever to say.”
Nobody sounds more aware of Britpop’s dissolution than Jarvis Cocker. Closer “The Day After the Revolution” seems to be explicitly about the end of the whole circus. “Perfection is over/the rave is over/Sheffield is over/the fear is over/guilt is over,” he lists before going on to declare that everything is done for, “Men are over/Women are over/Cholesterol is over/Tapers are over/Irony is over/Bye bye.” Commercial suicide maybe but considering that the only two bands to make it out of Britpop with their legacies intact (You should know what the other is by now… okay it’s Blur) both made albums anticipating this it sounds like a canny move of self preservation. It’s not that Jarvis Cocker couldn’t have made another rip roaring pop record, he didn’t want to. Consider “Sylvia”, it contains the album’s only true go for broke chorus, everything building to a triumphant(ish) shout of “I can't help you but I know things are gonna get better!” This would have fit well on the singles charts but it wasn’t released as a single at all. Cocker’s willful receding from the spotlight is even more evident when looking at the singles that were released, songs about the inevitability of death, a fathers shame, the exaustion of the party life, and hardcore pornography.
Man, I thought Different Class
was well produced. This is Hardcore
is such a willful rejection of Britpop that even the mixing is a direct response to Britpop’s paper thin treble squall, and it sounds amazing. Every instrument on This is Hardcore
has been given a massive amount of space and the bass is a beast of its own. Nowhere is the sound of This is Hardcore
more evident than on its bewildering title track. The immediately jarring percussion speaks volumes, the horns even more so; by the time the piano comes in I’ve been transported far away from here to a place of pure delightful evil. Meanwhile, Cocker’s pitch perfect vocal performance seems hell-bent on communicating one thing, sex with Jarvis Cocker is terrifying
. “It seems I saw you in some teenage wet dream/I like your get up if you know what I mean,” he leers, “Oh this is Hardcore/this is me on top of you/And I can't believe that it took me this long.” Naturally, it was the album’s second single. But while many would consider its peak position of 12 as a disappointment, I see a song with no chorus about passionless sex breaking the top 20. Sounds like a triumph to me.
But it’s a lyric from “Help the Aged” that perfectly encapsulates the state of British music in 1998. As Britpop began producing diminishing returns, it’s minor acts like Kula Shakur and Menswear rapidly sliding down the charts, and the nation’s music industry continuing to cling to the idea that all was well, nothing sounded quite as ominously true as “In the meantime we try, try to forget that nothing lasts forever.”