Drug-addled depravity or Britpop-slaying show stopper? Twenty years on, the jury is still out on Pulp’s epic riposte to the hazy days of Cool Britannia. “This is the sound of someone losing the plot,” Jarvis Cocker sings. True. “You’re gonna like it…but not a lot,” he adds. Hmm. Sam Lambeth decides.
Jarvis Cocker had always wanted to be famous. And he’d waited an awful long time for it. Beneath the gawky spectacles – assigned to him aged five after contracting meningitis – and fragile frame was a man longing for widespread stardom. By the time he got it, though, he was a little too long in the tooth to actually enjoy it. “I think I’ve passed my sell-by-date on that score,” he said in 1998. “You’ve probably got more opportunities than you’ve ever had (to sleep with groupies), but there’s something deeply unsound about shagging someone who thinks you’re great.”
Twenty years ago, the British music scene was going through an important transition. The hitherto all-conquering Britpop was beginning to sink under its own decadence – musically, its big hitters, Blur and Oasis, had flirted with Pavement-indebted indie scuzz and fell into cocaine-addled crapulence, respectively. Politically, things were equally squalid, the faddish Tony Blair tapping up any Britpop stars with currency to chum it up under the guise of New Labour. It was no surprise that Cocker, all arch cynicism and working-class grit, felt repelled.
If Messrs Albarn and Gallagher had already killed off Britpop, Cocker made sure it could only be identified by its dental records. This is Hardcore arrived in 1998, the party over and the Britpop bomb damage visible on its battle-hardened frontline. Those hoping Pulp – the third angle in that unavoidable rock triumvirate – would stay faithful to their kitsch and sink formula were going to be left bitterly disappointed. In came cinematic, sweeping songs detailing bleak pornography, escapism and the downside of success. Cool Britannia was crumbling, and the grotesque realities were laid bare in Pulp’s brave, beautiful and twisted epitaph.
Opening track The Fear addressed coke-riddled paranoia over creaking, unnerving guitar. With its bloated synths, overzealous choir and moody riffery, it served as a fitting introduction to the faded grandeur of This is Hardcore. It is at once uplifting and absolutely crushing, where Cocker takes his self-loathing and removes the levity. There is still room for some of Cocker’s wit, however, on second track Dishes, containing the ever-quotable lyric “I’m not Jesus, though I have the same initials.”
In a way, This is Hardcore serves as the curtain closer to Pulp’s commercial days. If His N Hers and Different Class displayed the Sheffield band at their most playful and commercial, This is Hardcore was the unflinching, grim finale. “What exactly do you do for an encore?” asks Cocker on the decadent, epic title track, all bombastic strings and ominous piano twinkles.
There is room for the catchy Pulp of old, however. Lead single Help the Aged whips up enough bluster in its swirling chorus to remain a permanent standout. The Bowie-indebted synth stomper Party Hard address ageing clubbers with a half-hearted grin, while the record’s gentler moments – the bruised contemplation of A Little Soul and the mid-paced majesty of TV Movie – show that there are still monumental melodies underneath the murk. Elsewhere, there was the show-stopping Sylvia, the perv-tastic but plodding Seductive Barry and, on the album’s deluxe edition, the pounding, peerless Like A Friend.
This is Hardcore took an infinity to record and was finally unleashed in early 1998. Before the record was warm, there was predictable controversy – the album’s compelling cover features a Hollywood blonde in an arrested pose (the model in question is now, believe it or not, a Russian politician) which caused outcries of sexism. This is Hardcore predictably divided opinion, but as time has progressed, its grubby portrayals of stardom and excess have given it an everlasting currency.
Sam Lambeth is a journalist, writer and musician, born in the West Midlands but currently living in London. He performs in his own band, Quinn. He is on Twitter, and more of his work can be found on his archive.