Meet the "new hard centre" in indie pop's choc box. John Wilde finds that Pulp have grown on him.
Pulp, neither putty nor pretty, meet Sheffield's steely stone gaze with a prickly, lawless grin or two. Defying, denying the commandment that equates Sheffield pop vultures with a stinging, heart-attack splutter... Pulp, some kind of self-made Christs, seem solitary and even freakish besides. Oddballs or oracles? Let's see.
Voice Jarvis Cocker, either the Alex Chilton or the Bamber Gascoigne of the new pop, first rallied his troops together over ten years ago, "Inspired more by The Sex Pistols than Jethro Tull" and intent on being "the Finnegan's Wake of post-punk". After more lulls than lunges, here they are. Last year's 'It' album dribbled out on Red Rhino, oblivious to the uncaring skies and hampered on its way by bitter Simon And Garfunkel comparisons. Musically too cautious and lyrically self-conscious, it mostly choked on the vitriol.
Then last month's 'Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) And Other Pieces' appeared; Pulp with a rocket up their arse and a racket in their hearts. A regenerated, most degenerated Pulp, swapping a casual canter for a scurvy disrespect. "A new hard centre," as guitar/violin Russell Senior quaintly puts it, staring into his mug of gin.
The EP's strange but endearing conceits have been swamped by the fussy over-concern towards its more, er, fleshy areas. There's a wry point buried someplace within the lust-lorn 'Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)' - 'There's a hole in your heart, and one between your legs. You've never had to wonder which one he's going to fill' - which has had their dissenters waving copies of Spare Rib and generally missing the seething satire of the line. Then there's (gulp) 'The Will To Power', a sturdy crack across the rib-cage of fascists and scumbags all: 'The only choice, the only voice in the darkness. 1933, where are you now, where are the broken bottles... where's truth and beauty?'
"We're not actually real-life fascists at all," states Russell with a sandpaper-dry smile and a swift shine of his NUM button. 'Little Girl', meanwhile, is as much a pure love song as 'Baby I Love You' or 'Baby Love'. This is what Jarvis tells me.
Whatever, this year's Pulp is a different kettle of spiders to last year's Pulp or the Pulp that have been lazing about in Jarvis Cocker's head for the last ten years. Just one year ago, I saw them in London, displaying all the hesitancy and spineless inhibition of 'It'. All that saved them was their apparent unsoundness of (collective) mind and their ragbag appearance, a look recalling the barmy escape party from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest more than anything. Twelve months on, Art Garfunkel is left picking the pubes from his teeth the morning after and Pulp turn into a monster, sort of.
This year, they know their onions, a five-sided mess of snide rustlings and furtive fumblings. The Velvet Underground skip behind the bike-sheds for a surreptitious snog with Ted Rodgers, that sort of thing. Violin shrill, guitar grind, drums à la Maureen Tucker, vocal deadpan though often impassioned, full of hemmers and hawers. Like those Velvets, they frisk and skit from 'Sunday Morning' tranquil to 'White Light White Heat' bedlam, a disquieting imbalance but a good one.
... "'It' was our puberty, a document of teenage crushes and talking about ideas when you don't know much about them, loving the idea of love rather than 'it' itself. The LP is almost embarrassing to listen to now for us, but it was accurate for that time. We didn't feel comfortable with all that smoothness. Now, the overall feel is not wafting away on clouds of marshmallows. It's more an underlying feeling of striving or longing for something that isn't quite there. It's more painful now - grabbing, clutching and missing."
Currently confined to a wheelchair following a three-storey fall out of a window ("I thought it was a door" / "I was exorcising a demon" / "Did it for a bet" depending who he's telling), Jarvis is unrelenting. Onstage, while the other four ends of Pulp run amok, nutty as a fruit cake, with this grumbling spire of noise, Jarvis sits there a long way from Val Doonican and 'The Green, Green Grass Of Home'. Limbs twitch, eyeballs bulge and bounce, body snaps in short convulsions. Most interestingly, as the songs persist to their fickle climaxes, Jarvis clutches the chair arm, his hands sliding in time to the clumsy beat, his body wincing and starting, the chair a sex object. Thrilling. But they're not just as sexy as your sister.
Neither wilfully opaque nor bleeding bloody awkward, Pulp are many shades, fitting into the Sheffield brute-funk mosaic not at all. "We are ten times more Sheffield than any of those bands. Just because it's from Sheffield, why does it have to sound like a steel factory? You go to Grimsby, you don't expect fish-slapping, or the noise of trawlers. We stem from our industrial culture more than Chakk or anything like that. We're just not what the current image of Sheffield is supposed to be."
And so what? Pulp are not perfect, but they make most indie pop seem like it has its head packed with cotton. Pulp have only marginally more charisma than Leslie Crowther but have the gall and nerve of a madman. Pulp will barely rise from cultdom, they're too full of nonchalant anarchy for that, but in the small pond... they will be nasty and endure. They'll annoy the living, shitting hell out of you, and you'll rub up to the person next to you because of it. They're haywire and, like The Raincoats or The Mekons, they're better for it. Their songs build and build and, unlike bubbles, they explode and still last.
"It's like someone once said... as soon as you realise that except for love and art it's all a bucket of shit... well, that's true about us."
Pulp. Nowhere near the bucket.