“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” – Amanda in Private Lives (1930), Noël Coward
A step back here, or a step forward, or both at the same time, or maybe neither. We’re back into the death ballads again, but of a different sort, grand and epic like ‘Happy Endings’, but celebrating cheap sounds more than even ‘Separations’.
Before I continue, though, it’s time for a confession. I don’t really get She’s Dead. I’ll agree that it’s perfectly lovely, in parts at least, but it generally leaves me cold, and at five minutes long it even bores me at times. I have been known to skip it. Usually when a track induces simultaneous revulsion and attraction I’ll be able to come down on one side or another sooner or later, but with She’s Dead this odd feeling lingers.
This seems to puts me in a minority. Of all the entries in the Pulp catalogue, this seems to be one of the prime choices to wax lyrical about, and as I’m not able to do this myself, why not let others lead the way? I find reading these descriptions more evocative than listening to the song itself.
“The band’s not at the point yet where they can afford a real string section, but the synthesized backing just makes the song more poignant, symbolic of something that’s nearly obtainable, but just out of reach.” – Mike at Music From A Bachelor’s Den
“Low-budget magnificence, the best of the Separations ballads, swoonsome and beautiful and horrible all at once. It cries out for a full orchestra to play out the unspeakably lovely coda, but perhaps that would ruin it; it’s prettier with the crying left on.” – Stéphane Devereux at Bar Italia
“Here, a chorus of cheap synthesisers… …creates a charity shop requiem, rendering all but unbearable this tale of death in a northern town, with the overtones of kitsch not toyed with, as so many lesser lights would, but embraced – here, Jarvis is heaven’s own mobile disco crooner.” – Owen Hatherley, Uncommon.
I love cheap-sounding music, but weepy ballads have always been difficult to take seriously. Difficult isn’t impossible, though, and descriptions like the above can make me imagine a song I like much more than the real thing – one that doesn’t challenge my suspension of disbelief quite so much. There are a couple of things that throw my attention off-track.
The first is the similarity to Bobby Goldsboro’s ‘Honey’. If the name seems unfamiliar, then go ahead and listen to it. Consistently voted one of the worst songs of all-time due to its unreasonable level of straight-faced schmaltz, I sort of like it. The strangeness of the lyrics (cited as the reason for its supposed terribleness) just adds to the charm. When Tony Blackburn split with his wife in the 1970s he had an on-air breakdown, playing the song over and over again. It’s cheesy as hell, but it’s sincere with it, and I like that it can affect someone that much. That’s not all it has in common with She’s Dead. In fact, the song is so similar that it’s a wonder lawyers haven’t been involved at any point. Just listen to the moment when he sings “And honey, I miss you” and compare to “You know that she’s leaving…”
The other connection that comes to mind is a perhaps less obvious one. In 1989 my family bought a VCR and taped pretty much every Children’s film over that Christmas, and I and my sister watched those films again and again until we left home. One of my favourites was Time Masters, an English-language dub of René Laloux’s ‘Les Maîtres du temps’. It’s an odd cartoon, to say the least, a series of ponderous semi-connected sci-fi events wrapped up by the king of all deus ex machina, but disturbing and beautiful throughout. The soundtrack is comprised of banks of similarly unironic cheap synths, producing an effect much like She’s Dead does. That moment after ‘she’s leaving’ where the keyboards swell to a climax, yes, it’s beautiful, but again it reminds me too much of the closing of the film. It’s a pleasant memory, and I’m happy to be reminded of it, but I end up spending the rest of the song just waiting for this one moment, and the rest just pales in comparison.
Pulp had not given up on sad ballads, of course, each album seems to have at least one. You could even venture a guess that it was the one form that persisted through every phase of the band. In the 90s, though, we’ll see them move a little off centre-stage, and I’m afraid to say I don’t really mind.