“This is about… you may reject something, and then perhaps about six months later you might think “I wish I hadn’t done that,” and then you go back to the place where you threw it away, and it’s not there any more. Sickener.” – Jarvis, on stage at the Leadmill, 1986.
For the third time in under a decade, it was back to square one for Pulp – or at least time for a good slide down the ladder to the second or third row. Russell was still there, but Candida had left the group, in solidarity with her boyfriend and her brother. In her place there was a mysterious character called “Captain Sleep,” who failed to leave much of an impression on anyone – largely due to his habit of lying unconscious in a corner during conversations. Candida would, of course, be back, and soon too, but Magnus and Manners had been replaced by Nick Banks and Stephen Havenhand respectively. We will get to both of them shortly.
The actual music the group played was, at first, undergoing something more like evolution than revolution. There’s no great shift in direction like the one between, say, My Lighthouse and Maureen – more a series of stepping stones which can lead us steadily, in less than twenty songs, from the depths of obscurity to the birth of the pop group we know.
The first of these steps must be ‘Down By The River’ – a song the group were already performing before they’d even made ‘Freaks’, and which remained largely the same until it was recorded for ‘Separations’ three years later. Unusually for a first step, though, its innovations are partly hidden by its shortcomings. In the three year gap between albums Jarvis’s songwriting skills showed a great deal of progress, but this only serves to highlight the weakness of including an old song based on a macabre metaphor for the death of his relationship – a relationship by then long finished. It might have seemed like a fertile source of content at the time, but by this point the well was running dry, and he’s in danger of sounding like a stuck record. By 1989 everyone involved had moved on, but the song survived without a re-write, perhaps because the theme of death and nature-based imagery (and in particular rivers) were becoming increasingly important to the group. If you were feeling generous you could even point to the song as a forerunner of ‘Wickerman’.
As must be expected by now, this content is provided in the form of another waltz-time ballad. To start with, the song is fairly atmospheric, while not being particularly fun listening. There’s a slightly plodding intro with Candida’s standard fairground Farfisa and Jarvis’s improved low-key vocals, but then it slowly begins to build in drama. The little touches really make it – a strange Japanese robot vocoder voice apparently singing “now I know…” (the dead woman’s ghost?), and at it’s best moments, light touches of dramatic film-score rumbling strings. The danger, of course, is that it will veer off into melodrama, but thankfully Alan Smythe’s production keeps it low-key where it needs to be. By the end section, where we hear that “the river will stop for no-one”, it’s even built into something quite beautiful.
In spite of all this, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Down By The River is one of the weaker tracks on ‘Separations’. It’s a problem with context on the whole. If it had been part of the grab-bag of styles and ideas found on Freaks it might’ve stood up quite well. Placed at the end of side A, after three other slow ones, the temptation will always be there to skip straight to the future, in the shape of ‘Countdown’. If you’re expecting the best of both worlds it will also be a letdown. On its own terms though, it’s not that bad at all.