Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Now with extra Pulp

Since this blog is intended as a chronicle of the art I'm making and experiencing, I've been meaning to tell you about how, a few months ago, I became obsessed with the '90s band Pulp. But it can be hard to write about things that you love unreservedly — it takes courage to share your passions, and not merely your opinions, with the world. In fact, I've been tinkering with this post for weeks, hesitant to take a deep breath and publish it. But then, today, Pulp's first new song in a decade became available on iTunes — so I should post this in the interest of timeliness, right?

I'm prone to sudden, random obsessions — stumbling upon a movie or a song or a performer that, for whatever reason, resonates with me so deeply that I need to research it to death and make it an integral part of myself. So, back in November, I was wasting time on the Internet and came across the music video for "Common People," Pulp's biggest hit song.

I'd vaguely heard of Pulp,  but this was the first time I'd ever listened to any of their music. As I watched the video, my thoughts were roughly as follows:
  1. This is a pretty good song.
  2. This guy is odd-looking.
  3. No, wait, this is a really good song.
  4. I want to do this song at karaoke. I wonder if they have it?
  5. He may be odd-looking, but he's incredibly charismatic.
  6. And he has some sweet moves.
  7. He is milking this "rock-and-roll frontman" thing for all it's worth.
  8. OK, he's hot! He is really, really hot.
  9. Is it weird that I think he's hot?
Subsequent internet research revealed that "this guy" is named Jarvis Cocker; that I am far from the only woman to find him attractive; and that critics tend to consider Pulp the best of the Britpop bands and "Common People" one of the best songs of the '90s. Cocker is famed for his sense of style, his onstage shimmying and posing, and his witty songwriting — and for being heterosexual despite all of that. In the U.K., where people affectionately refer to him as just "Jarvis," he is considered a national treasure and one of the coolest men alive.

Of course, all this raised the question of why he and his group had failed to register on my consciousness previously. I mean, why didn't anyone ever tell me about this tall, skinny British guy who wears hipster glasses and sharp suits, dances "like a sexy rubber band," and writes great lyrics? Hell, in 2011, Nirmala Nataraj titled her Olympians Festival play Selene, or Someone Like the Moon after a Pulp song — and Nirmala is uber-cool and glamorous, so why didn't I take that as a hint to investigate this band right away?

At the same time, I was glad to learn that my initial instincts were correct: this was a band and singer worth knowing about. Especially because I'm always on the lookout for catchy and well-crafted pop/rock music that also has something interesting to say. So I downloaded Pulp's major albums and have been listening to them on repeat. They've become the soundtrack to this period of my life; I'm even doing silly things like quoting the lyrics in my diary.

Because the songs are quotable, and super smart. It's almost impossible to avoid knife-related metaphors — "keenly honed," "sharply observed," "cutting wit" — when describing Jarvis Cocker's lyrics. While Oasis, the most successful Britpop band, are known for writing nonsensical lyrics, Pulp songs tell coherent, though often sordid, stories. They're full of racy come-ons, withering put-downs, and wry despair. The lyrics may not be complex in the sense of being brilliantly rhymed or packed full of wordplay, but they're complex in the feelings and situations they evoke. For instance, from Pulp's 1995 masterpiece Different Class, "Disco 2000" is an exuberant disco-rock song about nostalgia, failure, sexual frustration, and "damp and lonely Thursdays"; "Sorted for E's and Wizz" is a "let's get high and go to a concert" song that ends with the narrator losing his friends and wishing he could call his mother; and "Something Changed" is a sweet love song with an oddly philosophical twist. There's also an anguished ballad about "Underwear."

As a singer, Cocker has a rangy baritone voice and a fondness for punctuating his lyrics with sneers, sighs, gasps and other effects. There's something theatrical about his singing — you can hear it in "Common People," how he goes from aloof quipping to impassioned belting in the course of one song. Another thing he likes to do is deliver spoken monologues to musical backing, which sounds risky but somehow works, thanks to his charisma and the band's talent. (I particularly love "David's Last Summer," a gorgeous and heartbreaking monologue about a summer idyll and its inevitable end.) Overall, I'd say that Pulp's appeal is in the anthemic grandeur of the music mixed with the biting specificity of the lyrics. They have a knack for creating pop hooks on both guitar and synthesizer, and it pleases my feminist sensibilities that the keyboardist is a woman, Candida Doyle. If you are also a Pulp newbie, check out the Guardian's top 10 Pulp songs for beginners.

Actually, I don't know whether to refer to Pulp in the present or the past tense. They disbanded in the early 2000s, reunited in 2011 for some touring, and, as I mentioned, just released a new song. But also, evidently, they're about to go on hiatus again. It's a bit confusing, and I selfishly wish that they'll continue on in some fashion. Otherwise, it's rather embarrassing to discover and fall for a band just before they call it quits for the second time.

Meanwhile, Jarvis Cocker (great name for an English rock star, that) has made two solo albums and become something of a Renaissance man. He's revealed a literary side, publishing a book of his lyrics and writing a very funny and insightful review of The John Lennon LettersAnd I've become addicted to the show that he hosts on BBC Radio 6 called, with typical irreverence, "Jarvis Cocker's Sunday Service." He plays eclectic records, commemorates events that happened on this day in history, and delivers droll between-songs musings in his Sheffield accent. It's like a much hipper and quirkier "Writer's Almanac" and always causes me to download a motley assortment of songs from iTunes.

I find myself incapable of getting a crush on anyone, even a celebrity, if all he has going for him are his looks. Even as a preteen, I never crushed on boy-band members, no matter how cute they were, because I didn't think that they were interesting people. So I guess it makes sense that when I do get a crush on a rock star, it's on a wry British eccentric. Humor and intelligence are sexy. Though geek-chic outfits, snake-hipped dance moves, and innuendo-filled lyrics don't hurt.

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