Listening to Freaks-era Pulp can often be a frustrating experience. With a little patience you can tell what they were aiming for, but also that they were following a blind trail up a dark alley. Jarvis’s deep sixties croon, Russell’s out-of-tune violin, tortured borderline-pretentious lyrics about death and perversion… It all simply wasn’t going to work, and comparison with their 1990s work shows that a different approach was needed. But then Being Followed Home blows this idea out of the water. Suddenly everything works perfectly.
In part this can be attributed to a level of professionalism above and beyond anything else on the album. Every note is well-chosen, every line well-crafted, Jarvis’s flat baritone slightly raised and steadied, the violin subtlety used to recreate the sudden jolts of a rising heartbeat, the lyrics well-crafted. An unmatched amount of talent and work are evident throughout. Thematically we’re not exploring new ground. Paranoia, dream narratives, journeys through the city at night – these have been common themes throughout the band’s career* – but here they are tied together perfectly. The title is the catalyst – is there any fear more primal than being followed by a malevolent force at night-time?
England can be a surprisingly scary place, especially at 3am on a Sunday. The clubs have closed, the crazies are out, and all you can do is keep your head down, avoid eye-contact and keep walking – quickly, but not too quickly. Freaks tend to draw attention. Cities are places where you can blend in, but when all the regular people have gone home to bed your cover is blown. Other people are walking the same route; are they harmless, just making their own way home? Or are they following you?
It’s a familiar situation, but Pulp manage to take it to new places. This is not so much a song, more a treatment for a post-punk-opera. In fact it’s cinematic enough that it sits in the part of my memory usually reserved for short films, and possessed of a very odd ABCBCDBA sequence taken from the realms of 15-minute prog-rock epics of the early 70s.
We start with echoey footsteps taken from Jarvis’s BBC sound effects LP, a low-key but determined guitar line, he mutters under his breath that he’s being followed home, and then the second guitar line comes in with a sudden jolt in tempo – a quickening step to test whether he really is being followed. As he walks he’s distracted by vivid memories from his recent past, a failed affair – he’s clearly still in love, obsessed by a supposedly indelible memory of this woman – but something has gone terribly wrong and he’s left her forever.
Romantic dreams can swamp the brain, though, can make someone lose focus. After a couple of verses of this we’re shaken back to the chase. He knows who his pursuers are – “the one with the dog breath in the tattoo bar” – and now they’re chasing him over garden walls, down dark alleys. The music has jumped into an altogether different place too – the panic and paranoia reflected in a helter-skelter jumble of opposing rhythms and noises. Magnus’s percussion really comes alive here, with sudden fills and crashes surprising yet superbly well-timed. Then we build to a climax, “the corner’s turned… and it’s too late.”
This would usually be the part to jolt awake from the nightmare, but instead he “awoke on a beach sometime later to a grey and sunless sky.” (this has to be one of my favourite Pulp lyrics of all-time) – he’s beaten and bruised, but now his memories of the beating and the romantic disappointment are all mingled and confused. The world has conspired to batter him from both sides. We return to the early verses, but now as a series of grizzly flashbacks – the other kind of indelible. But time can heal everything – his wounds begin to heal, and his memories begin to fade. The handprints in the sand that “would last forever” have been swept away by the sea – he’s forgotten the fear, but also the passion.
There’s a sense that all of this is a metaphor, but a literal interpretation seems equally valid. No matter what personal triumphs or tragedies are fresh in your mind, the world can be a cruel and random place. As the track finishes we return to the start. A recurring dream? A repeat? Or a memory that won’t go away? He’s being followed home.
*Though ‘paranoia’ would soon be replaced by ‘sex’