Had The Fear been right in its prediction that listeners would “like it, but not a lot,” then the chances of Pulp reuniting for This is Hardcore would have been slim. Here they are, though, a quarter of a century on. Astonishing in its gluttony, rewarding in its perversions of the period that shot them to, near enough, the top of the charts. Overtly dark and noir influenced as Sheffield alumni ABC were on The Lexicon of Love, Pulp storm through with their sickly and sexualised interpretations of their excess on an album that serves as a final curtain for the Britpop period. An intense look at the role of celebrity, the effective sway people in power have and all of it helmed by a disgruntled, indoor shades-wearing Jarvis Cocker.
Whining notes, the dark strums of Mark Webber’s guitar in place of a departing Russell Senior mark opening track The Fear as a note of tension within a band who had lived it up on the Glastonbury Pyramid stage just a few years before. Turning their attention to art rock, Pulp join up with the stylistic tones and dark ambiguity Suede enjoyed on their self-titled debut, just without the self-respect. Even the gluttony of Dishes, the comparison between frontman and Jesus Christ through initials, feels despondent and hollow. Sarcasm drips from those warnings of age, as they do on Help The Aged. A band in the throes of a midlife crisis, realising that their time was not up when they seemingly wanted it to be over and done with. Where it really kicks off is the stretch from Party Hard through to title track This is Hardcore, a firm claim to one of the greatest stretches of three tracks for any album.
Paranoia seeps from Party Hard, desperations of clinging to youthful allure on Help the Aged prepare the band for a Candida Doyle-dependent end of Side A, with the tense piano and noir aesthetics of This is Hardcore a breaking point for the band. They exhaust themselves instrumentally, the consistent marvel of introspective lyrics from Cocker shoring up the B-Side. Looser on A Little Soul but pulling it around for underrated Seductive Barry and the moving cries found on the chorus of I’m A Man. Inside the mind of a band on the edge is a delicate place to be, and Glory Days gives it that colloquial punch, the group never forgetting their roots amid the sweaty nights, the champagne snorting evenings now that success has weathered the storm.
Controversial preference for the Hardcore era over that of Different Class is shored up well with bonus tracks The Professional, a caricature punch out of what Cocker’s lyrics were most associated with, and rejected James Bond track Tomorrow Never Lies. Their revolution was televised as The Day After the Revolution chimes in. Pulp could have rested on their laurels, and continued making something that chimed with the expectations of fans as Oasis did. Their pursuit of popularity is telling. They do not have their Hardcore moment. Their 13. Their Coming Up. Pulp cemented themselves as the top of the artistic pile with an album that strikes through as equally satisfying as it is chilling. Damning the rush of desire and articulating with genuine and atrocious fear what happens when you really get what you want, This is Hardcore is a brutally honest document, a masterstroke that sees a band reflect, immediately, on the success they had longed for.
In all of that is personality and personalised appeal. This Is Hardcore marks itself as a jack of all trades for mood and tone. Help the Aged has connectivity, an electric consistency that sees Steve Mackey and Nick Banks hold things together as Webber once more pushes through with a guitar riff that maintains an almost danceable quality. Arch the back, bend the knees, and you get there soon enough in those lonely nights with headphones connected to Bluetooth record players. This is Hardcore holds a horrified sway to it, an accessible look at what should be the all-time high. Nothing could be further from the truth, and in turn, Pulp showcase a time capsule terror that still maintains a seething, lightning-in-a-bottle feel.