“Is it possible, in the final analysis, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another? We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close can we come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?”
Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
With a couple of exceptions, Pulp always felt the need to include an epic ballad on their full-length releases; it’s one of the few threads you can draw most of the way through their career. With His ‘n’ Hers, though, something is off – there’s a cuckoo in the nest here, his name is Ed Buller, and Happy Endings might have been his masterpiece.
Right from the moment that wordless echo fades away and those woozy waves of synths start to swell there’s no doubt that he’s hit upon something unspeakably magical. Such a grand, magnificent, futuristic sweep, that casio orchestra at the gates of heaven again. But then our tragic symphony fades into those familiar stabs behind the vocal, and something is lost.
It’s not that Jarvis’s vocal is bad – it’s actually pretty good – but with this backing something about it sounds a little too stagey and affected. That’s acceptable enough for a moment, but the verse is too long, the atmosphere continually giving little surges, wanting to swell up again, but gradually losing momentum. Then for a moment the transition to the chorus brings back the prospect of a return, only to be flattened by Jarvis again as he gets into full flow.
This pattern continues throughout – verses and choruses that are just ok, production lurking around, peeping out whenever it can find a gap. In odd moments it’s allowed to seep through and take over – and these, universally, are stunning, the synth-flute solo being perhaps the best of them, sounding lush but cheap, especially with those rumbles of early 70s Kevin Ayers underwater guitar and Jarvis softly using his voice to highlight instead of dominate.
That’s the nub of it, isn’t it? I love the production but the song keeps getting in the way of it – and it’s not a bad song, it’s just the predictability of the chord changes, the familiarity of the ballad structure, it all keeps dragging us down to earth when we should be soaring up to the sky.
The version from the Island demo in 1992 is very different indeed, for all that it’s just the same song. It’s far from being a brilliant performance (the vocal, for example, is clearly a test run-through rather than a finished product) but a low-key production with modest ambitions just suits the flow of the song better. Nevertheless, I’d go with the His ‘n’ Hers version – magnificent semi-failure is generally better than competence.
Isn’t it fitting, too, that lyrics about the gulf between dreams and reality are pared with a production that overwhelms and makes redundant the song itself? Happy Endings is another post-breakup song, but instead of being vicious here we’re nostalgic and wistful. Maybe things could’ve worked out better, and maybe if we believe hard enough, they still can. Although, of course we need to ask; does the happy ending actually just mean getting back together? Is that just willful mutual self-delusion, or the sheer power of willpower (or dare we say love?) to make something work? Is this a song, ultimately, about grasping at straws? The lyric is aware of all of this, of course, and also of the old saying that a happy ending means the story isn’t finished yet – and once again I can’t help but wish that the pieces slotted together a little better.
Happy Endings, for whatever reason, was too difficult to recreate in a live setting, and so it was kept out of the setlist for almost an entire decade, until it was finally revived for the Auto festival in 2002. This version is definitely worth a listen – Buller’s atmospherics are recreated by taking Richard Hawley’s steel guitar and filtering it through effects pedals to sound mournful, desolate and heavenly – which, amazingly, works almost better than the thing it’s supposed to emulate. For one of the final songs performed before the group went on indefinite hiatus, it was almost too fitting in its bittersweetness.