This is Hardcore
England's failure to establish a rock-and-roll stronghold in the States, Oasis very aside for now, can be attributed to an unapologetic ethnocentric bent: Such blokes as Oasis' Noel Gallagher, Blur's Damon Albarn, and especially Pulp's Jarvis Cocker write songs for and about their English motherland, no matter what MTV thinks. It's evident all over Pulp's oldest and latest records, and the brand-new This Is Hardcore is no exception; it's all about one thing: Cocker's thoroughly British preening. Class difference, seedy sexual forays, and sighing commentary on social decadence have been his themes all these years, approached with an art-rock smugness. But it's always recounted with a wink, as if to say, This is supposed be a bit absurd, you know. This is Hardcore comes on like a diva demanding a giant spotlight, a sense of entitlement front and center, but suffers the same potholes that Pulp has managed to dig over the years.
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The music often plays a supporting role to the hype and hyper-style Pulp projects, and these newest songs can't fulfill Pulp's promise that it's the most clever band on the planet. But what songs could? The album is filled with a baker's dozen of Cocker's look-at-me musings (the movie-score dramatics are part of the act, see); the opening track--the overlong, miserably roiling and unmelodic "The Fear"--is a good example of the band at its self-indulgent worst. In fact, Hardcore doesn't transcend the style-over-substance problem until the eighth song: "I'm a Man" finally evokes the groove-laden muscle of David Bowie's yelping, gender-bending Young Americans era, with its anthem-like chorus: "So please can I ask just why we're alive/'Cause all that you do seems such a waste of time/And if you hang around too long you'll be a man."
"Glory Days" offers up some satisfying layering--gritty guitar textures, slippery beats, and a melody that nails the engaging immediacy of good pop. Nonetheless, Hardcore's overall presentation is like a seduction attempt made sour by the seducer's self-congratulatory assumptions, as well as its tired retro leanings. It's almost as though ABC has released another Lexicon of Love for the late '90s.
Cocker is proud of his poetics (he is a better lyricist than Gallagher and Albarn, which is no great compliment), and while they sometimes recall Lou Reed's deadpans and Leonard Cohen's dankness, the permeating insincerity leaves a listener feeling disconnected from any potential sentiment or observation. For instance, "Help the Aged" pokes at attitudes about the elderly--"Help the aged/One time they were just like you"--but gets thrown by the plodding sarcasm of a guy who thinks he's a lot funnier than he is.