on 1 March 2005
"This is our 'Music from A Bachelor's Den' / the sound of loneliness turned up to ten / a horror soundtrack / from a stagnant water bed... / and it sounds just like this". The first line of the first track, The Fear, ably establishes the dark, decaying feeling of the morning after that Pulp we're surely feeling following the fallout of Britpop and the unparalleled success of their previous album Different Class following years of indie-obscurity. Whereas that record had revelled in giddy excess, chip-shop glamour and tales of boozed-up holidays and promises of meeting old loves in the new millennium, This Is Hardcore instead takes a long hard look in the mirror, gargles out the stench of the alchopops and brushes away the debris of another soulless night on the town to find the hollow, soulless feeling of middle-age slowly creeping in.
The songs on This Is Hardcore reflect a life at the crossroads, with a narrator no longer impressed by one-night stands, drug-fuelled odysseys, discothèques and night clubs, and instead, realising the emptiness and self-parody at the heart of shallow celebrity. Although it's safe to say that Cocker had always preferred to sing about the outcasts and losers at the heart of a sleazy society, there had always been an element of celebration or romanticism to undercut the images of peeling wallpaper, teenage bunk-ups or drugged-fuelled trysts. Here, his characters are presented in grainy close-up, with the stench of tobacco tainted family rooms, alcohol soaked clothes and personal defeat, all positively rife from one song to the next. From the opening track, which recalls the seedy voyeurism of I Spy, but takes things further into the haze of drug-induced paranoia (gelling with the art-work and reminding me of the character from Pink Floyd's The Wall... that jaded rock star hiding away behind the façade of his chic penthouse apartment, which has also become his tomb!!) with the production work of Chris Thomas further expanding the sonic landscape to take in ambient/electronic elements and the odd nod to trip-hop, whilst the band favour a more stripped down sound with acoustic guitars, live drums and a hint of orchestration.
The juxtaposition this creates is perfectly in tune with the themes behind the music, with the combination of arrangements and production creating a hollow vacuum of excess that the heart and soul (of both the music and the narrator) must cast off in order to further understand who they really are. Here, the lyrics throughout are more confessional in tone than the anthemic musings of His N' Hers and Different Class, with Cocker continuing The Fear with lyrics like "this is the sound of someone loosing the plot / making out that they're ok when they're not / you're gonn'a like this... / but not a lot / and the chorus goes like this", before the rest of the band join in and the song takes off into something that more closely resembles the classic Pulp sound. The next track, Dishes, is one of the more minimal offerings... beginning with a hint of keyboards and Cocker's dead-pan vocals intoning "I am not Jesus, though I have the same intials / I'm the man, who stays home and does the dishes...". The song later blooms into something more pop-like in feel, with the rest of the band eventually joining in to add drums and a keyboard counter-melody, creating a piece of music that's not a million miles away from the songs on Different Class.
Although the music here has that distinctive Pulp sound, the lyrics remain dark and despondent throughout... This isn't an album for those wanting to sing along with the common people, but rather, an album to cry yourself to sleep to when you realise she isn't coming home (and on top of that, she's left you with the kids!!). There's the typically mordant streak of humour featured throughout, but the songs are less boisterous. Even something like Party Hard, which has a sparkling keyboard melody care of Candida Doyle seems worn down and weary, with Cocker's not-quite-there-vocals exposing the tedium behind the whole Britpop scene ("and have you ever stopped to ask yourself / if you didn't want to party... / then why did you come here?"). Next is Help the Aged, a lush little song with gorgeous strings, languid percussion and Cocker's sleepy vocals all luring us into a (mostly) gentle song about the foibles of growing up, with Cocker's main concern being the loss of stamina and libido when everything starts going grey, falling out, or heading south for the winter.
True, the album isn't without it's flaws... like a lot of albums from the same period, it's probably too long, with the record as a whole pushing the 60 minute mark, whilst songs like Glory Days, Seductive Barry and Day After the Revolution would have probably made better B-sides. But that said, the rest of the album is fantastic stuff, with Pulp pushing their sound in such a way that it manages to reference both the early sound of It... and Freaks, as well as the peak His N' Hers/Different Class Britpop years, whilst simultaneously forging a new sound pitched somewhere in between. The use of sampling and lighter touches of trip-hop in the title track is fantastic, with the huge orchestral feel mixed with the drums and pianos, not to mention Cocker's sly lyrics ("this is hardcore... you make me hard"). There's also TV Movie, a largely acoustic song with clever lyrics that hold a double meaning ("without you my life has become / a hangover without end / a move... / made for TV /bad dialog / bad acting / no interest / too long with no story and no sex"), the gorgeous Little Soul, which is possibly the greatest song Cocker has ever written, and the joyous pop of Sylvia, which leads us towards the end on a bitter high ("I can't help you but I know things are gonna get better!").
This is Hardcore is perhaps a little rough around the edges... but, regardless, it still represents Pulp at the peak of their abilities. The combination of great pop melodies with darker lyrics that seem to point more towards Cocker's true feelings circa '98 works well, and shows Pulp to be probably the most vital band of the Britpop-era (...alongside Radiohead, The Divine Comedy and Luke Haines).