Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, released in 1998, is a testament of anxiety in our culture, the diary of someone failing at life despite having success, a war report from the front of unsuccessfully battling to fill the void. Pulp, the Britpop band that had been releasing albums for over 10 years before suddenly having enormous success, published this album three years after Disco 2000 was an international hit and the fallout was wearing them down. Artistically I consider this album their masterpiece, despite its flaws. It’s a bit messy, untrimmed and unfocused at times, but when it hits its mark, it goes straight for the kill. It’s unflinching and bitter and cynical but always with a certain sense of humor and full of brutal honesty. And it’s brilliant. You might feel uneasy and slightly embarrassed while listening to it, but you might also get an idea of an artist struggling with life in this culture, but never stopping from telling us about it.
The first track The Fear is basically the theme song for the album. It describes the feeling of utter anxiety, of not being able to move or talk or think without fear, of being lonely, of struggling with sanity and reason, of the incapability to pretend everything’s okay, of being disillusioned, of being completely naked and vulnerable and without any protection. And all of it with a slight sense of irony and gallows humor.
Dishes starts with Jarvis Cocker’s brilliant lines:
It’s a song about having all the necessary standards of a “normal life” – being married, household chores, being there for each other, telling each other comfort phrases – but still never being completely happy and always feeling this terrible void.
Party Hard is an observation of a woman who doesn’t seem to enjoy the incredible party around her, making the narrator wonder Why do we have to half kill ourselves just to prove we're alive? He does obviously not like her, but because he is stuck in the same pattern, the last lines show his pathetic dilemma:
What causes lot of anxiety for people in our culture? Growing old! In Dishes the line A man told me to beware of 33 made me smile now, since I’m 33 and, well, anyway, Help the Aged is kind of comedic but the bitterness shines through. Seeing how your body changes, facing the thought of death, wondering if your life was really worthwhile. But asking those questions in your mid-30s is also a sign of how desperate this culture makes us.
The title track of the album is sleazy and dirty and desperate. It’s about sex, the phrases that are used to get it, the porn ideology of simply getting to the point of fucking without any real feelings. But as everything else on the album, the spark is gone, everything seems tired and worn out, all these expressions sound even more shallow than they are in the first place, and the music adds to that, with that slow moving percussion and the horns. And look at those lines:
You have to be brilliant to write something as hard boiled and brutal as this and capture the sad spirit of pointless sex just for the sake of it. Seeing Jarvis Cocker dancing accordingly in the accompanying great video just tops it off. This is my second highlight on this album after The Fear.
TV Movie is a break-up song but rarely has heartache sounded so bitter and weary. It’s clear that the lost partner symbolizes everything that’s wrong in this life, which is now full of pain and boredom. The desperation is so explicit, the need for someone to make things better. And again, the writing couldn’t be more spot on and gut-wrenching that in those opening lines
A Little Soul sounds like a bar conversation between father and son, exchanging stories of bad marriages. Two men mistreating their women, but with all the right intentions and no lessons learned. It’s heartbreaking how the father tells his son,
Especially since the opening of the song makes clear that it’s too late for that already. The circle of mistreatment just keeps on circling.
I’m a Man gets over with all the machismo clichés and is probably the most outspoken song, wondering what the point is of all the things men are supposed to do and how they are supposed to act. It also points out how we're stuck in those rules and expectations, trying to fit in, even if it makes us sick.
Seductive Barry is more depressing fake sex for money, Sylvia is the story of a girl who got mistreated by life. Glory Days and The Day After the Revolution end the album by summarizing and reminiscing the past to see how much time was wasted, how little was achieved and how hopeless things seem now. Drugs, alcohol, sex, parties, procrastination, disillusion and the hopeless hope that maybe there was a point to all of this.
But the last song makes clear that nothing was achieved. The hopes were high, but ultimately everyone was to busy with themselves to change anything in the world. The supposed “revolution” sounds like the apocalypse here.
Any justice for anyone? Do the scales tip back?
No, just arrogance and ignorance. And now?
What a way to end an album, with the end of everything. This is a brilliant piece of music, unforgiving and merciless. It's the bitter taste in our mouths after the party, that is our culture, has ended.