Tag Archives: his ‘n’ hers

#133 – Someone Like The Moon

19 Jul

obuIDPn

Someone Like The Moon (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Someone Like The Moon at Pulpwiki

“I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about being sold an illusion by songs and TV. When I got older and started to have relationships and stuff, and found that life doesn’t necessarily have a gripping plot, I felt like I’d been conned in some way, so it was always a thing from early on to write about what those things really were like, rather than the way they were presented in songs and stuff. You know, people do live life at just as extreme an emotional pitch in a place such as Sheffield, which has got a lot of faults, but people do fall in love and live and die in those places, and i couldn’t see that anyone was representing that, and I thought it’s just as dramatic as it happening in Beverly Hills or something” – Jarvis on “Do You Remember The First Time?” Radio 1 documentary

It’s just over twenty years since His ‘n’ Hers was released, a little less than that since I bought it, and it’s only this week that I’ve started to like ‘Someone Like The Moon’. For most of that time it was, at best, a mood-killer. Ambivalent as I was to Pink Glove, it at least provided an emotional climax to side B, but when it faded and that impossibly, childishly minimal ascending scale appeared, it felt like a lull, a loss of momentum where the big closer was required. And what was it about, anyway? A bored girl sitting at home? What was that unremarkable mid-paced waltz doing calling itself a chorus before it fizzled out uselessly back into the equally unremarkable verse? His ‘n’ Hers was treading water where it should have been lifting off, and skipping forward to David’s Last Summer seemed to be nothing less than an act of mercy.

With the passage of time, and listened to in isolation, though, SLTM isn’t nearly as bad as all that. It’s a mood-setter rather than an anthem, a succession of tones designed to evoke a feeling – an odd, interesting feeling too. Harking back to the group’s 80s ballads, it switches their melodrama for a kind of spooky boredom, the feeling of being left alone to deal with an impossibly vast existential emptiness gnawing at the back of your mind. Its air of broken romantic balladry sounds like an imagined new romantic incarnation of Scott Walker.

It’s a character piece, but once more intended to give shape to fears which belong to Jarvis and which (hopefully) are universal too – again the disappointment of a romantic when they are inevitably faced with the real world, but this time with romanticism itself being a ploy, a veil for both naivety and cynicism. As a character, the girl is only vaguely sketched, but that’s also sort of the point – these romantic clichés have reduced her to one too. At the end we shift into the third person – as we will do again later in ‘Catcliffe Shakedown’ – making us both observer and observed. It’s a complex piece then, and it works, in its own way.

Being in a recording studio, making a record, involves close observation, and grand gestures which sound great on a car radio may be sidelined by small touches which nobody will notice. Maybe that’s why SLTM is on this LP – the beauty of the sound blinded the group to the flaws of the song underneath. The production of the track is a delicate, intricately layered thing, with subtle layers of synth sounds, reminiscent at times of the Twin Peaks theme, gentle touches of timpani and heavily distorted bass and cymbals faded and smudged to near-ambient levels. Jarvis is close-miked to exploit the resonances in his voice, and this works well too. Best of all, though, is the use of Russell’s violin, properly exploited by Ed Buller for the first time, giving the track a painful, distant sense of yearning.

SLTM is very successful in a sense then, but my initial doubts still remain. There is something fundamentally unresolved and unsatisfying about the track, and slotted penultimately into His ‘n’ Hers, it still sounds like a lull – and an unneccecary one considering the strength of the other tracks which could’ve taken its place. The group’s love affair with it seems to have been brief too – it was written, recorded and released within a few months, then immediately forgotten about. Reproducing it in a live environment may have been difficult, but similar translations between the studio and the stage have at least been attempted. Ultimately it earned a reputation as the duff track on a good album, but does it deserve it? I’m really not sure.

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#130 – David’s Last Summer

23 Jun

'Summer' by Wavingmyarmsintheair

David’s Last Summer (‘His ‘n’ Hers’, 1994)
David’s last Summer at Pulpwiki

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925).

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time”
John Lubbock

“Pulp once played a festival in Liverpool that was held in Sefton park. I remember seeing a Victorian glasshouse that had been left to its own devices after public service cuts. The plants were completely overgrown and the building seemed likely to explode at any moment due to the volume of vegetation inside.”

Jarvis Cocker – Mother, Lover, Brother

“We looked at each other irresolutely and then by common consent pushed through the rushes to the river bank. The river had been hidden until now. At once the landscape changed. The river dominated it— the two rivers, I might say, for they seemed like different streams. Above the sluice, by which we stood, the river came out of the shadow of the belt of trees. Green, bronze, and golden it flowed through weeds and rushes; the gravel glinted, I could see the fishes darting in the shallows. Below the sluice it broadened out into a pool that was as blue as the sky. Not a weed marred the surface; only one thing broke it: the intruder’s bobbing head.”
LP Hartley – The Go-Between

“When you get the first hot day of the year, I always get these pictures in my head. You think of all the things that happen in summer, swimming in lakes and building a tree-house and you get quite excited. But then you know that you’re not going to do all those things, you’re probably just going to end up working like you normally do. But it would be good just to have one summer that was like that one time and so I wanted to capture that feeling of those summers that seem to go on forever and you can do lots of things.”

Jarvis Cocker, French newspaper interview, 1994

“In summer, the song sings itself.”
William Carlos Williams

The idea of writing a song to evoke the endless summers of Sheffield in the late 70s had been in the air for quite a while. The first attempt, one of two songs named “My First Wife“, has already been covered, but undoubtedly there are many other attempts that fizzled out in the rehearsal room between 1987 and 1994. The version that emerges in the His ‘n’ Hers sessions has only a few snatches of lyrics and a theme in common, but the process of change itself has left its mark. It has an odd mish-mash structure, apparently being created out of a grab-bag of different snatches of music that didn’t fit anywhere else and were commandeered by this back-burner project. Along the way it also gained some fairly odd musical flourishes (including a sneaky lift) and a sympathetic producer who seems to have been determined to let his final touches be as near perfect as possible.

A snatch of lyrics and a theme may not sound like a lot, but David’s Last Summer is built around its narrative – as a short story rather than a song. That doesn’t mean that it’s an atmospheric bed for a poem – when it kicks in, after the lull of ‘Someone Like The Moon’, it actually sounds like the album is getting a second wind. DLS is the first pastoral Pulp song, and half-remembered it will always seem to be thoughtfully dramatic, so the sudden jump into this high-tempo mid-80s light jazz/funk always seems slightly jarring, and for a moment I’m tempted to think of it as a misfire. It’s not, though, it’s just a break from the expected shimmering, laidback feel of long hot summer films, a more realistic representation of the giddy feeling at the start of English summer holidays, and makes perfect sense as the start of our story.

We made our way slowly down the path that led to the stream, swaying slightly, drunk on the sun, I suppose. It was a real summer’s day. The air humming with heat, whilst the trees beckoned us into their cool green shade. And when we reached the stream, I put a bottle of cider into the water to chill, both of us knowing that we’d drink it long before it had chance.

Jarvis got the name of the song from a book in his school library called “Pennington’s Last Summer” which he saw but never read. Except he didn’t – K.M. Peyton’s classic young adult novel was called “Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer” though it was also published as “Pennington’s Last Term.”

Pennington's Last Summer

Misrememberings like this always seem to be the wellspring of good art, and this is a great song title, vague and evocative. Who is this “David”? The lyrics constantly shift perspective – “we” “you” (female) “you (male) and her” “Peter” – but there’s never a David mentioned. Is this the kid called David from ‘Babies’? And why is it his last summer? Is this a character whose death makes the memory of this summer indelible, or is it a “last” summer before he leaves? The value of this summer is defined by how fleeting it is, and the possibility of death at the end sharpens this pressure.

If the year is a cycle of death and rebirth, then in summer we pass the peak and look down into the shadowy valley beyond.

This is where you want to be / There’s nothing else but you and her / And how you spend your time

The Last Summer is a perfected archetype, specific but general. It’s in Sheffield, in the 70s, but it could be anywhere and at any time. We’re caught between the innocence and carelessness of childhood and the nostalgia and awareness of consequences that come with adulthood. There’s a tension between the blissfully tranquillity of lying in the sun and daydreaming and the self-consciousness born from that freedom to think. We’re slipping into a slower pace, but under that soothing pastorality there’s an intense consciousness that makes the memories stronger, more vivid, more important.

We went driving

There are moments like this that are intensely filmic. Is it possible at this point not to picture the non-existent music video, the group heading down country roads in a convertible? We are in a moment, in a time, in a place. To be able to suspend disbelief like this is the measure of success for a piece like this. Was there really a summer like this? How much of it was spent bored or distracted? It doesn’t matter, of course.

The room smells faintly of sun tan lotion in the evening sunlight, and when you take off your clothes, you’re still wearing a small pale skin bikini. The sound of children playing in the park comes from faraway, and time slows down to the speed of the specks of dust floating in the light from the window.

Memory may be eternal and timeless, but real time is limited. In David’s Last Summer each moment is caught, frozen, before we suddenly skip forward to the next. The effect is that of flicking though a stack of polaroids. On summer holidays I used to focus intently on a single moment, think about how it would seem later as a memory, then, as it passed, think about how it was gone now and unchangeable. I don’t know if this is something other people did.

Time is limited, everything will die. To feel time passing is to lose it.

So we went out to the park at midnight one last time. Past the abandoned glasshouse stuffed full of dying palms. Past the bandstand and down to the boating lake. And we swam in the moonlight for what seemed like hours, until we couldn’t swim anymore.

Sefton Park Glasshouse - here pictured in a better-managed state

The abandoned glasshouse is in Liverpool, the bandstand may be the one mentioned in the DYRTFT film. Memories are cut and pasted as much as music is – each section is different, but all somehow fit. Here we notice a snatch of melody which seems to be lifted from “Lisa (All Alone)” by Santo & Johnny. We’ve started at a casual fast pace, slowed down into contemplation, and now we’re speeding up again into an anxious close, but at no point has our journey seemed forced or unnatural.

As we walked home, we could hear the leaves curling and turning brown on the trees, and the birds deciding where to go for the winter. And the whole sound, the whole sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town.

Pulp’s first attempt at a spoken song, Goodnight, took listeners gently down to road to sleep before shouting “boo” just as they were drifting off. It was a mean trick, but there was a good idea somewhere behind it. DLS doesn’t descend into horror, just a curdling, the love of the moment morphing into the impossible desire to hold on to it. First there’s the picked guitar, like September birdsong, the distant thunderclap of rumbling bass, then in comes Candida’s slightly out of tune Farfisa, like the distorted 8mm film of a beach holiday. Finally the pace starts to pick up, with Russell’s icy, discordant stabs of violin, as chilling as the first autumn winds, a storm rolling in, the sky darkening, the desperate feeling that the summer is over and there will never be another one like it, a final moment of crisis between the experience and the bittersweet memory.

And as we came out of the water we both sensed a certain movement in the air, and we both shivered slightly, and we ran to collect our clothes. And as we walked home, we could hear the leaves curling and turning brown on the trees, and the birds deciding where to go for the winter. And the whole sound, the whole sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town.

…and up and up we go, taking off like a kite carried off into the storm. There is no more satisfying ending to a Pulp album, no better example of a story in a song. A hodge-podge of different sections, cobbled together over half a decade, it still works as high narrative drama, and (dare I say) art. Pulp would be soon be much bigger, and perhaps even better, but they’d never again simultaneously be this odd and this brilliant.

#129 – Do You Remember The First Time?

25 Apr

DYRTFT

Do You Remember The First Time? (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (music video)
Promotional interview for DYRTFT, 1994
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Butt Naked, 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Jools Holland 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Reading 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, 1994)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Brixton Academy, 1995)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Tokyo, 1996)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Munich 1996)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Lorely 1998)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Hootenanny 2002)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Glastonbury 2011)
Do You Remember The First Time? (live film, Reading 2011)
Do You Remember The First Time? (cover by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, 2014)
Do You Remember The First Time? at Pulpwiki

If you look at the depictions of teenagers on television today, they’re selfish, avaricious, out for themselves. They’re also confident, sexy and cool and they’re really at home with sex and drugs. If you look at the portrayal of children on TV in the 70s, in something like Children of the Stones or The Changes they’re terrified of the world, they’re uncomfortable, alienated and alone, and I think that’s much truer to what it’s really like to be a teenager than what you see in Skins.”Stewart Lee on Screenwipe

“All things have their place. First adolescent zip fumblings; first secret drug voyages; the first time you realise that after the first time, the whole process may never be as good again.”
– Single of the Week in the NME.

“It’s a lot like playing the violin / You cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin”Sparks, ‘Amateur Hour’

“Well do you? And why did you choose them? Was it the drink or the time of year or the position of the planets? Or was it just their hair?” – Original sleeve notes

Pulp are chiefly remembered in the wider world for a single momentarily ubiquitous hit. This, obviously, isn’t it, but it might well have a greater claim to be their theme tune all the same. When the group reformed for a reunion tour in 2011 it was Do You Remember The First Time – not Common People, Babies or Disco 2000 – that formed the theme of the teaser campaign, and which opened the set every night. This wasn’t so much a re-writing of history as an acknowledgement that the passage of time does odd things to a band’s catalogue, and that what seemed to be a song written in opposition to nostalgia could, if contextualized and given enough distance, become evocative enough to prove itself completely wrong, and therefore completely right, or vice-versa.

To open up to a wider audience with a song about nostalgia and disappointment may be an odd move, but reforming for a tour where you only play old material and using it as your introduction seems on paper nothing short of ridiculously bloody-minded. Pulp, of course, were never interested in doing things the usual way, and quite often they found that the silver lining of optimism and empathy is always clearer the more you focus on the cloud of shared disappointment. That’s universality for you, and that’s what DYRTFT is all about.

Ok, all a bit obvious now perhaps, but it certainly wasn’t in 1994, when Pulp were still relatively untested newcomers to the top 40. When a group make the leap from being a cult act to public property, it’s important to sell the concept to a much wider audience. This isn’t the same thing as “selling out” – in some ways it’s quite the reverse. Instead of selling off your fans to the highest bidder you’re opening up to everyone, going from exclusivity to inclusivity. You have to give people a glimpse of a gang they want to join, a story and a mythology to get them hooked. Every successful group have to make this leap at some point, that’s why Jarvis was always so dismissive of the early 90’s mantra of “we make music for ourselves and if anyone else likes it then its a bonus”.

It’s a hard ask, but no revolution was required – Pulp had been building up to this for a while, and there are no drastically new themes present. A dash of crap nostalgia, a helping of “I don’t like your new boyfriend’, DYRTFT is part of a clear lineage through Razzmatazz and Lipgloss, but something has clicked now and we suddenly have a much more mature take – a simpler picture in some ways, but one with a much wider perspective, near-universally relatable.

The cultural significance attached to the losing of virginity in the west is such that disappointment is inevitable. Generally speaking, nobody is expected to be good at something the first time they do it, but for some reason this particular task gets tied in to perceptions of maturity and self-esteem, and the embarrassment felt after the standard poor first-time performance is expressible only through irony and jokes. Talking honestly about this as a shared experience rather than a personal shortcoming seems to cut against English cultural norms, and surely puts paid to the odd concept of Pulp as dealers in kitsch or camp. The first time might be the worst time, sure, but it’s all uphill from there – the rest of life and love in all its joy or sadness is a great adventure to be had, or to remember for that matter.

This is, then, the most inclusive vision of the group so far, and musically it’s a larger, more generous version of what we’ve already been through – a brighter, higher resolution version of the picture. We’ve heard Pulp flirt with sounding like other 90s indie groups and it’s never tonally felt quite right because limbs had to be cut off to fit into those different shapes, and limbs are the most interesting parts, after all. For Do You Remember The First Time, Pulp are instead given a space to spread out – a big, confident sound with big confident guitars, though Pulp lack the kind of guitar hero generally responsible for such things. The model for this regimented expansiveness seems to be Suede in their glam rock anthem mode – an easy enough connection for Ed Buller, I suppose. It’s his track, in a sense, and credit is due for making it work. That swooping synth atmosphere underlying everything seemed to be the group’s sound bed for the His ‘n’ Hers tour and a radio documentary. Consequently it sounds to me like The Pulp Noise, so whatever his mis-steps elsewhere Buller can definitively be said to have made his mark on the band’s sound – though all this would be swept away by 1995, of course.

Slotting into the background more are Nick and Steve – this sort of song doesn’t need anything fancy from the rhythm section besides maintaining a steady rhythm and allowing the song to progress through the series of pulls back and releases, and they play their part well without standing out. Jarvis, on the other hand, is ridiculously on-form, by turns spitting out and whispering lines – no showboating or melodrama, just perfectly judged, and perhaps his first real star vocal performance. Something has changed, just a little, but enough to indicate that the imperial phase is almost upon us.

By 1994, the birth pangs of Britpop were well underway, as can be evidenced by a quick glance at the video for DYRTFT. It features a host of characters dressed in vaguely 70s, Pulp-ish clothes all hanging around having clumsy sexual encounters in alleyways and dingy flats while Jarvis stands nearby serenading them. Pay close attention and you might notice two future members of Menswe@r (at this point involved in a Select-constructed Camden Mod revival scene) hanging out in these scenes – apparently Chris Gentry actually lost his virginity on the video shoot. The rushing euphoria of the track is expressed by the movement of a camera on a semi-circular overhead track, constantly changing scenes by sweeping through the ground or the walls. It’s a neat idea, and it has to be said a brilliant piece of work, but the concept is taken so far as to make the viewer slightly sea-sick. Fortunately the song was also used as the basis for a short film, which we’ll be talking about in more detail next time.

The next Pulp single we’ll get to is Common People. It might seem still to be miles off, but it really isn’t. From this point onwards Pulp are a mainstream pop band, part of the now, public property, and all for the best. DYRTFT marks the start of all of this, and even if it lacks for innovation, it’s surely one of the best things they ever recorded.

Note from author: Sorry about the gap in these entries, several things have come up all at once, and I’ve found myself very busy. Entries should now continue as before – it would be a shame to stop now after all.

#128 – Joyriders

1 Mar

'Joyrider' by Ross McDonnell

Joyriders (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Joyriders (acoustic) (b-side, Common People, 1995)
Joyriders (Sky Arts ‘Songbook’, 2009)
Joyriders (live film)
Joyriders (live film, Glastonbury 1995)
Joyriders (live film, Reading 2011)
Joyriders at Pulpwiki

“I was trying to push the car off the road so I could make my way to the garage on foot when a new Ford Mondeo pulled up and the (very young) driver asked me what was up. His (also very young) friends got out of the back of the car and helped me push the [1974 Hillman Imp] off the road. They then offered to give me a lift to the garage, which I accepted. Once inside the car I realised that it very probably did not belong to them… …The driver and his friends seemed very excited and offered me chocolate limes. We drove (at speed) to the garage and then they drove me back to my vehicle with the necessary jerrycan of fuel. This is how I repaid their kindness.”
– Jarvis Cocker in Mother, Brother, Lover

One of the criticisms sometimes levelled at His ‘n’ Hers is that delicately crafted songs are drowned in the heavy cream of Ed Buller’s production. So it’s an odd sensation, playing it after a year or two away, to hear that familiar unfiltered Britpop guitar riff, and an immediate launch into the most standard indie track of Pulp’s career so far. No layered synths, no ghostly undercurrent, just chunky guitars, a straightforward melody and the uncluttered production sheen associated with “classic rock.”

For many professional reviewers this is decidedly *a good thing* – for example, here’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine at Allmusic:

“Joyriders kicks the album into gear with its crashing guitars. It establishes Pulp not just as a pop band that will rock; it establishes an air of menace that hangs over this album like a talisman”

If this quote makes you feel slightly nauseous then I don’t blame you. Pulp had many mission statements in the early 90s and none of them expresses an interest in “rocking” in any form. And yet, he’s right – Joyriders does indeed work as a conventional rock song, and it does set the tone for the album – it just happens that this tone isn’t really what many of us came here for.

Before this all starts getting negative again, we should remember that this is still a decent indie pop song – it sounds bright throughout, has a memorable tune and a story to it, glitters and shimmers in all the right places and has a nice short-story style dramatic arc to it. This all sounds fine on first listen, in the background or at a festival, all perfectly reasonable uses for music, and all immune from criticism. Sometimes staring at something until it falls apart is more of a sickness than a skill, and there’s no point spoiling anyone’s fun.

And yet, here we are, and here is Joyriders, the sound of something working quite well until you check under the bonnet and find it’s been running on fumes the whole time. What’s wrong then? Well, let’s start with the story. Instead of the lift to the garage described above the Joyriders here are two-dimensional underclass villains; brainless, malevolent thugs, unacquainted with women, who want to get the rest of us hooked on a bit of the old ultraviolence. As Jarvis admits himself, it’s not really fair payback for doing him a favour, but beyond this aren’t the real chocolate-lime-eating surprisingly helpful delinquents much more interesting? As we saw with Watching Nicky, Jarvis seems to reduce real people to clichés while creating hosts of believable fictional characters elsewhere.

And then at the end “we’re taking a girl to the reservoir / oh oh the papers say it’s a tragedy / buy don’t you want to come and see?” Aged 14 this seemed impossibly dangerous, chilling in its implications. Now though, it seems a bit silly. People are voyeuristic often, yes, but meta-level awareness of this point from sadistic teenage gangs is fairly unlikely, and nobody in their right mind would even consider going with them. A pedantic point, perhaps, but it’s all it deserves. I remember playing the song in my dad’s car one time – he laughed at the line and said “no, I don’t, thanks” and you have to admit he had a point.

This wouldn’t be such an issue if the section were not repeated for most of the last two minutes of the track. It’s easy to see why they do this – the clever phrasing, the gravity of the situation, the issue is such that repeating it drills the numb horror of it all into you. Except when you don’t take it seriously, of course, then it has the exact opposite effect of underlining how trite it is. The final touch is the nail in the coffin, Jarvis aiming for sinister but only achieving Charles Hawtrey.

Also in the “do not want” list is the main melody, once again nice on a casual listen, but the way the guitar chords mirror whatever Jarvis sings is annoying, like a rock treatment of a nursery rhyme, and results in the song being completely undancable. This only has the effect of focussing attention on the story, and well, enough about that already.

Let’s finish on a couple of positives, though. Candida’s synths are once again a strong point, as buried as they are here. The hauntological layers she put in with Ed Buller sound as eerie and poignant as ever when they finally make an appearance, and she even produces the song’s only truly satisfactory moment when Jarvis stops at “it’s a tragedy….” and she carries over the melody of the rest of the line on her keyboard. There are also lots of nice little touches in the production, the half-second of feedback before the solo (yes, there’s a guitar solo) is nice too. The acoustic version found on the Common People single is not bad either – the guitar line being the whole song anyway, it helps to let it stand on its own, and Jarvis sounds weary, which just works better.

Joyriders is a survivor. If there had been a 4th single it would’ve been the obvious choice, and it was popular at festivals for years. Lots of people still like it, and they have every right to. I just don’t anymore.

#126 – Have You Seen Her Lately?

15 Feb

tumblr_mv8mfw6IkS1qbkoedo1_1280_zps63ad4541

Have You Seen Her Lately? (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film, Glastonbury 1994)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film)
Have You Seen Her Lately? (live film, Paris 2012)
Have You Seen Her Lately? at Pulpwiki

“First you let him in your bed
Now he’s moved inside your head
And he directs all the dreams you are dreaming”

If Seconds was an ultimately optimistic portrayal of the messy compromises life throws your way, then Have You Seen Her Lately? is perhaps its evil twin. Instead of empathy we have sympathetic despair and a hopeless wailing and gnashing of teeth towards a lost cause. Instead of acceptance of the drama life throws at us we have the inevitability of death, and the death of dreams, of hope.

Once again Jarvis’s ex is in the arms of another man, but this time he’s taking it much worse. From his perspective (and as the title reminds us, he has corroboration) the new boyfriend is a bad move all round. He’s insecure (“Do you think he’ll fall apart?”), immature (“It’s time to teach him how to walk”), a burden (“a piece of luggage that you should throw away”) and somehow hugely dangerous (“He’s already made such a mess of your life”). Her relationship with him is akin to the joining of a suicide cult – she’s already been brainwashed and this is her last chance to get out before it’s too late.

If you’re thinking this all sounds a bit extreme then that’s fair enough. This song is decidedly not coming from a rational or logical place – it’s a desperate last-grasp for redemption, and Jarvis sounds more like a lonesome ghost returning to whisper dire warnings in his old lover’s ear than a human giving advice. That’s the way they play it too; singer, band and producer conspire to turn this plea into one of the oddest, but most consistent pop songs around.

From that first out of tune organ sound onward, everything about ‘Have You Seen Her Lately?’ sounds sickly. In Emile Zola’s novel La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret a young priest drives himself into a life-threatening fever through excessive worship of the Virgin Mary, and this illness has the same sort of feel. It’s utterly religious and oddly asexual – the end-point of the group’s romantic tendency when all goals and desires are rendered useless. It’s another Ed Buller symphony, but this time it’s all a little too overwhelming. The verses are normal enough, I suppose, but the chorus is essentially one long, resigned wail, and toward the close of the track the song takes you back to the haunted music room of ‘Blue Girls’ – a wistful, deeply sad anti-nostalgia, something we might call ‘hauntology’ if it were made today.

I’m impressed by ‘Have You Seen Her Lately?’ – it’s hard not to be by such a powerful piece of music – but I’m still not sure if I actually enjoy it. With earlier ballads what was required was a suspension of disbelief, but here it’s more like a willingness to go with the core idea, and I don’t know if I can do that. Ultimately I don’t trust the narrative of this relationship – the singer is too involved to present a clear picture, and there’s a lingering suspicion that he has his own selfish, desperate romantic instincts underlying his argument. Is the girl too weak, too pathetic to realise her situation, if it’s really so bad? If so, why does he want to win her back so badly? Does she not have her own free will, to join with or even follow whoever she chooses? There’s something that doesn’t quite sit right, and I just can’t shake it. This may all be deliberate, it may be that I’m missing something, but all the same it stops me diving in and going with the flow, and that’s a shame.

#124 – Lipgloss

18 Jan

LipglossSingle1
LipglossSingle2

Lipgloss (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Lipgloss (music video, 1993)
Lipgloss (live film, ‘The Word’ 1993)
Lipgloss (live film, ‘Butt Naked’ 1994)
Lipgloss (live film, 1994)
Lipgloss (live film, Brixton Academy 2011)
Lipgloss at Pulpwiki

“She’s a haunted house / And her windows are broken / And the sad young man’s gone away / Her bathrobe’s torn / And tears smudge her lipstick / And the neighbors just whisper all day” – Scott Walker ‘Big Louise’

“We do not pray for immortality, but only not to see our acts and all things stripped suddenly of all their meaning; for then it is the utter emptiness of everything reveals itself.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“Women have been swindled for centuries into substituting adornment for love, fashion (as it were) for passion. All the cosmetics names seemed obscenely obvious to me in their promises of sexual bliss. They were all firming or uplifting or invigorating. They made you tingle. Or glow. Or feel young. They were prepared with hormones or placentas or royal jelly. All the juice and joy missing in the lives of these women were to be supplied by the contents of jars and bottles. No wonder they would spend twenty dollars for an ounce of face makeup or thirty for a half-ounce of hormone cream. What price bliss? What price sexual ecstasy?” – Erica Jong

“Men get laid, but women get screwed.” – Quentin Crisp

It’s to the credit of 1993 Pulp that a throwaway rehash of the previous year’s singles can turn out to be a near-masterpiece. Lipgloss is the result of a simple formula – “Razzmatazz x Babies = hits” – but it would be a mistake to describe it as cynical or contrived. Instead it’s just a case of “practice makes perfect.”

Why does Lipgloss work where Razzmatazz only sort-of worked then? Well, a lot of it is to do with tone. While Razzmatazz has a slight mis-match between the tragic story and the attempt to sound big, Lipgloss takes the sadness and uses it to push further. The result is a rush – an odd feeling of euphoric despair generated by facing up to your worst fears and letting yourself imagine they’re all true. Part of what makes the song work emotionally more is the complete lack of spite. That malicious empathy has gone entirely – now if anything we are the girl’s inner voice, captured at the moment she realises everything she’s known before no longer counts, and that life is out of her control, at the whims of the uncaring gods.

The title of the song came from the story of an anorexic girl who only ate lipgloss*, but this is something of a red herring as eating disorders are only referred to in a throwaway line. In general, ‘lipgloss’ here refers to an intangible magnetic quality which empowers and defines her – a close relative to ‘it’, ‘mojo’ or even ‘X-factor’. It was the main thread of her life, but she didn’t realise until it vanished. Has her lover suddenly shaken off the hold of some sort of falsely constructed feminine mystique and failed to connect with the real woman beneath? Had the relationship dulled the edges of her personality so much that a shift of perspective has revealed her to be little more than an echo? Not truthfully, not entirely, I’d like to say, but let’s remember that this is all just her worst fear. So stuck in the moment are we that all of this is little more than guesswork, but it’s all vivid enough that no back story is required.

In the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the bizarro-world version of Pulp produced by Stephen Street, and that’s where the story of Lipgloss started too. This demo version is locked (perhaps forever) in the Island vaults, a shame in a sense as it would be interesting to hear a real hit with a straightforward production style, especially as Lipgloss has a fairly standard structure and is built around a guitar-lick hook, so perhaps it would’ve been best-sided to a meat & potatoes treatment. Or perhaps not – the atmosphere generated by Candida and Ed Buller is one of the main factors driving the song in its surge forward.

Candida has a fairly minor role to play here, but an essential one. The central descending keyboard figure is hard to unhear once you’ve tuned into it* – a nursery-rhyme series of notes, it underlies everything without ever drawing attention to itself. Then there’s the other synth-line which sounds like metallic lapping water – a Stereolab song of a few years later has the same sound isolated for a few bars, but here it intermingles with the rhythm of the song as naturally as breathing in and out.

Throughout the song simply adds up to more than its component parts. The guitar sounds minimal, almost sampled, the chorus is a bit lacklustre, but there’s a continuous upward movement that holds it all together. Part of what finally sells it to me is the section starting at 2.10, where the tension of the buildup suddenly dissipates and we’re left with that heavenly, haunted synth-bed that embodies this era, and perhaps the band as a whole.

Lipgloss was the first single released on Island, and the first to have a professionally shot video after years of improvised scenes with unpaid extras. While on tour in Liverpool Jarvis had seen an “inflatable environment” called ‘Eggopolis‘ – a gigantic art project that was touring the UK. It was ideal for filming a music video, visually stunning in a unique way, but it took such a long time to find a studio to house the thing, inflate it and have it professionally lit that there was only time to film two run-throughs and ten minutes with Julie Jones in her boudoir holding up signs. Then Jarvis decided to edit the thing in Sakia’s unheated loft in November and consequently get the flu.

I can understand, then, why he’s not keen on it, but it still works, largely because of the visual brilliance of the Eggopolis itself. It’s good to see Julie Jones here too – she’s a largely unheralded figure in this story so far, but was the group’s unofficial stylist through these years, and has been mysteriously referred to as the “source of much inspiration” by Jarvis on a couple of occasions – once even saying that she was responsible for the story behind Acrylic Afternoons. Her role in the video is a little odd (she’s most certainly not the girl who’s “lost her lipgloss” and I’m not sure if she’s even supposed to be) but as a character she makes more of an impact than any other bit-part performer in a Pulp video. As well she should.

*There’s a soundcheck floating around where Candida practices her part again and again. I remember at first being unable to place it, then as soon as I had it suddenly altered the entire way I heard the song, probably to its detriment. So I won’t link it here.
**Did The Designers Republic not know the difference between lipgloss and lipstick or did they just think it looked better?

#121 – Acrylic Afternoons

28 Dec

drawn curtains

Acrylic Afternoons (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Acrylic Afternoons (John Peel Session, 5/3/1993)
Acrylic Afternoons (live film, 1994)
Acrylic Afternoons (live film, Brixton Academy 21/12/1995)
Acrylic Afternoons (live film, Paris Olympia 13/11/2012)
Acrylic Afternoons (live reading, Rough Trade 5/12/2011)
Acrylic Afternoons at Pulpwiki

“When people have sex in songs, it’s done in a glossy way, or in a Prince way – ‘I can shag 24 women in a single night’ – but never in a realistic way, like ‘I came after 30 seconds’, so I just wanted to write about it in a matter-of-fact manner. Maybe English people like the thought of it being forbidden, a little naughty, but it’s no good being reserved about it. You can’t have sex reservedly – you know, a bit detached – and that goes against the English character.”

– Jarvis Cocker in Melody Maker, 1993

“Well cut Windsmoor flapping lightly,
Jacqmar scarf of mauve and green
Hiding hair which, Friday nightly,
Delicately drowns in Drene;
Fair Elaine the bobby-soxer,
Fresh-complexioned with Innoxa,
Gains the garden – father’s hobby –
Hangs her Windsmoor in the lobby,
Settles down to sandwich supper and the television screen.”

– John Betjeman ‘Middlesex’

“We’re now in a semi-detached house in a cul-de-sac somewhere on the outskirts of Sheffield….” It’s telling, is it not, that Jarvis feels the need to set the scene with extra observations like these when introducing live renditions of ‘Acrylic Afternoons’. It’s a song about a dream, in a dream, and dreams have a setting; a time, a place, a moment, a mise-en-scène.

On His ‘n’ Hers no such narration is needed to begin the story – instead we have a set of ghostly, ethereal sounds, and the echoed voices of children playing outside. These effects don’t set the mood so much as the idea that we’re in a dream. Creating this 20 seconds of sound turned out to be a more complicated task than expected, and ended up costing the group a fair amount of studio time.

“Originally, this consisted of a piece known as “The Tunes Of Evil”, a random, unsettling noise conjured up out of this old analogue synth. As soon as we’d committed it to tape, strange things started happening in the studio. The mixing desk blew up, the multi-track for “Joyriders” disintegrated and we had to piece it back together by clever jiggerypokery. Ed Buller developed strange pains in his back and generally, the vibe went bad. So we had to destroy this music, but the engineer erased the wrong track. Obviously, “The Tunes Of Evil” didn’t want to die. The piece you hear at the beginning of “Acrylic Afternoons” is different and, as far as I know, safe.”*

Even without this mythology, the intro is creepy enough on its own – but then the dark, rumbling SFX are interrupted by a few jabs of the keyboard motif, and off we go into a steady-but-undancable, feverish rhythm. Like the best of Pulp’s work it doesn’t have any real sonic parallels – a simple enough musical concept which is still hard to pin down. Steve’s bassline is the real driving force – an urgent, dangerous thing, redolent of dark desires. Russell’s violin circles around, sometimes repeating Candida’s keyboard, sometimes breaking free and buzzing about like an angry wasp trapped in the sitting room. This is particularly notable as Ed Buller for once managed to incorporate it into his vision for the song, demonstrating that their two approaches weren’t fundamentally incompatible – though he kept him low in the mix. Altogether, the whole sounds like a series of musical moments linked by the overarching narrative of a pursuit, perhaps like the one in ‘Being Followed Home’ – but now instead of being the prey, we are joyously part of the chase.

It’s a dream, then, and that’s how we started; with “a small child in dungarees who caught his hands in the doors of the Paris metro.”** Then our narrator wakes up, or perhaps he doesn’t – everything after this point seems equally dreamlike. We’re transported to another world – the clearest picture yet of the suburban section of the sexualized city, a place Jarvis expresses equal parts lust and repulsion towards – this ambivalence being perhaps the most important theme of ‘His ‘n’ Hers’. Here the suburbs (South London or Sheffield, it doesn’t really matter) are stuck in a temporal bubble; a world where it is and always has been 4.30 on an eternally sunny July afternoon. The imagery here is vivid, startlingly so – “Net curtains blowing slightly in the breeze / Lemonade light filtering through the trees / It’s so soft and it’s warm / Just another cup of tea please.” Put simply, it’s as evocative as any poem I know, condensing atmosphere, passions, culture and synthetic-fabric-based fetishes into tight stanzas that flow together organically.

It’s a “sexy” song, too, of course, but nothing really explicit happens until we get to the “pink quilted eiderdown…” and even then the almost ‘Carry On’ level of smut it contains is neutralised by the utter lack of a wink or a nod. Jarvis sounds completely sincere in his rapture, and at times is so carried away that he sounds like a breathy nuisance phone-caller. Elsewhere he loses control entirely and embarks on a series of vocal gymnastics – raw, animalistic squeals & squeaks which, again, could be hilarious if they weren’t played so absolutely straight. This could be his best ever vocal performance.

We’ve dealt with quite a few constructed characters on this blog, and there will be plenty more, but with this dream, this fantasy, the woman is subsumed by the place and the moment. She is merely a type, and at the end she is a plural, another single mother in an identical house, having an identical affair. Jarvis isn’t important either; he’s just another visiting lover. The dream isn’t about people then, it’s about the feeling of the moment, the place. Acrylic Afternoons is a hymn to that afternoon in suburbia, a thematic manifesto for the album, and it will always remain in that bubble, delirious, enraptured in the moment.

*This sounds quite like a famous (but possibly partially apocryphal) anecdote about Brian Wilson starting to lose his mind during the recording of ‘Smile’ –

“Yeah,” said Brian on the way home, an acetate trial copy or “dub” of the tape in his hands, the red plastic fire helmet still on his head. “Yeah, I’m going to call this ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Fire’ and I think it might just scare a whole lot of people.”
As it turns out, however, Brian Wilson’s magic fire music is not going to scare anybody—because nobody other than the few people who heard it in the studio will ever get to listen to it. A few days after the record was finished, a building across the street from the studio burned down and, according to Brian, there was also an unusually large number of fires in Los Angeles. Afraid that his music might in fact turn out to be magic fire music, Wilson destroyed the master.
“I don’t have to do a big scary fire like that,” he later said. “I can do a candle and it’s still fire. That would have been a really bad vibration to let out on the world, that Chicago fire. The next one is going to be a candle.”
— Jules Siegel, ‘Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!’

**A reference to this sign, with a rabbit rather than a child: