#96 – Death II

22 Jun

Death II (Separations, 1992)
Death II (Live Video, The Leadmill, Sheffield, 16th March 1991)
Death II at Pulpwiki

“Night clubs just seemed like the most hellish situation on the world, but it was attractive, because it was so alienating, and that’s what a death club is; it’s just like a night club, it’s like; ‘how can I be in a situation like this where you’re pounded by music and only a consumer?’ I mean you’re a consumer at a gig, but you’re making a choice to go and see it, to interact with it in a way, but going to a club at the time seemed to me like being trapped in an elevator in the fucking circus.”
John McKeown of The Yummy Fur talking about The Career Saver.

If we reduce ‘Separations’ to its constituent parts, as has been done for a series of cash-in compilations, what do we get? Just Countdown and My Legendary Girlfriend, of course (though Love Is Blind might occasionally get a look in). Usually when there are two hits on an album full of the soon-forgotten, they’ll be top-loaded, perhaps with one on each side, and it seems a little bloody minded to keep the listener waiting until side B for them before putting them next to each-other. It does, work, of course, but there’s a casualty, and it’s called ‘Death II’.

of course, it’s the song’s fault as much as anything – for all its qualities (and there are many) it simply doesn’t have the hook – anyone can hum “my legendary girlfriend, she is crying again” or “I was seventeen when I heard the countdown start…”, but ask them to repeat something from ‘Death II’ and nothing comes to mind except possibly that ‘distorted and sharply gated Portasound arpeggio’ at the start. This, and the fact that it’s lumbered with a working title (Death I being ‘Death Comes To Town’ and Death III being ‘Countdown’) seem to indicate that the song was unfinished at the point of recording.

This isn’t to say the song is sub-par though – in fact, quite the opposite. This unfinishedness give the group – and especially producer Alan Smyth – scope to transform what could have been just another rehashing of old themes into a club hit – one with a soul and a (somewhat messy) narrative as well as a thumping futuristic disco beat. The lyrics are a bit of a curate’s egg, having a fantastic opening – “Now the lonely nights begin / And there is nowhere else to go / But watch my spirit melt away / Down at the D.I.S.C.O.”* – which quickly becomes lost in a sea of familiarly opaque longings for a lost love. It’s a story told from a bed, flitting memories and desires preventing the protagonist from sleeping. From time to time, it’s expressed as a physical yearning, prefiguring ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’ and ‘Sheffield: Sex City’, at times flipping to an equally physical revulsion – but the pieces don’t quite fit together yet. Still, it’s far from being a failure.

Where Death II really comes alive is with the music, and specifically the production. Aside from Jarvis’s vocal, the track is almost entirely synthesised, and the delineation of labour indicated on the album sleeve is possibly meaningless. Smyth is the uncredited band member here, playing snatches of keyboard, gating, sequencing, stitching it all together, and later live performances attempt to recreate the studio version rather than the other way round. The results are nothing short of great – even the usually cheap-sounding Portasound here appears to be startlingly professional, the banks of heavenly synths are laid with a careful hand, and the whole thing has a dangerous, growling, funky air to it. Electro-pop Pulp is here, and Jesus Christ, it’s about time.

As for what it has to do with death, well, yeah, your guess is as good as mine.

*This, if anything is what people seem to take from the song – a quick search reveals a score of people describing Death II as “Pulp’s ‘How Soon Is Now?'” – which isn’t really the whole story.

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