This Is Hardcore is often hailed as the death knell of Britpop, a fiercely British cultural movement marked by working class grit and pop candor. Acts like Oasis, Blur, and Suede arrived to shake off the sad-sack fuzz of shoegaze and the US’s grunge movement, girded by a kind of sardonic cultural pride that aligned nicely with the rise of Tony Blair and New Labour.
Pulp would join those acts to make Britpop’s “Big Four,” but they’d always remain outsiders, in their own way. The band had already been around for 15 years by the time Britpop took hold in 1993, and wouldn’t find success until the following year’s His ‘n’ Hers. Even then, frontman Jarvis Cocker didn’t fit in with the posterboy cool of Damon Albarn and the Gallagher brothers. Pale and lanky, he grew up an introspective misfit in oversized government-issued spectacles. As a teen, he was kidnapped by pedophiles in a van after his mother told him to be more sociable, only to outwit them with sarcasm. Accordingly, Pulp’s songs—like “Pink Glove,” “Mis-Shapes,” and, of course, the smash working class diatribe “Common People”—always maintained a degree of observational skepticism, less keen on celebrating or winking at being British, than really going in on it. That underdog ethos that would take Pulp all the way to a headlining slot at Glastonbury in 1995.
By 1998, “Cool Britannia” was being shamelessly co-opted by the newly-elected Tony Blair, as the once-hopeful voices of Britain’s working class towns were drowned out by mine closures and New Labour’s champagne socialism. (Blair’s team supposedly tracked down Cocker while on vacation in New York to ask him to support the election campaign, to which Cocker told them to kindly “piss off”; he’d later formally clap back on the underrated Hardcore B-side “Cocaine Socialism.”)
Britpop was now the stuff of tabloid fodder, a bonafide pop craze distorted into a prefab Spice World, with the baton of dissent yielded to the more palatably cynical hands of Radiohead. Blur ditched the movement the year prior to go full Pavement on its self-titled album, and Oasis had become a caricature of itself. Cocker, for his part, was courting it-girl Chloe Sevigny and a coke habit, his now-spectacle-less pout adorning magazine covers and bedroom walls. A rock 'n' roll sex symbol at last, just in time to be neutered by the inane whimpering of Coldplay and Travis. The sanguine momentum of the impending millennium Pulp heralded on hits like “Disco 2000”—the momentum that got Cocker to where he was—had come to a screeching halt.
Then Pulp threw the gauntlet of This Is Hardcore, an unsparing send-off and hangover for the day after the revolution—or was it all just a fashionable party? The group’s sixth album was immediately met with controversy. Its cover, by artists Peter Saville and John Currin, features an uncanny valley portrait of a Hollywood blonde, her nude torso bent over red satin sheets. Her elongated neck arcs unsettlingly towards her open mouth and detached eyes, the album’s hot pink title stamped obscenely across her skin.
“This is Sexist,” would read the graffiti scrawled over Hardcore promo posters in London’s Underground, along with “This is Demeaning” and “This Offends Women.”
It’s hard to say whether the subway vandals missed Pulp’s point, or helped make it. This is Hardcore saw Britpop’s working class heroes reckoning with fame, hedonism, success, money, and the grotesque distortion of reality that come with them. It’s not their best album, nor their most popular—even die-hards tend to skip around to the singles—but that’s also what makes it an artistic achievement that still resonates, perhaps more than ever, beyond the decaying “Cool Britannia” from which it was born.
Perhaps more unsettling than the cover art was the music. Gone were the disco-drunk anthems for misfits, the suburban nostalgia, the major synth momentum, and sexed-up class critiques that propelled the long-toiling Sheffield quintet to stardom on their previous two albums, His ‘n’ Hers and 1995’s landmark Different Class. In their place was something darker, something off, rife with porny brass and hollow lounge ballads, bleak sex and claustrophobic mortality. The first note of opener “The Fear” suggests, for a moment, the rising momentum of past hits like “Lip Gloss” and “Do You Remember the First Time,” but quickly reveals itself to be quite the opposite with a minor sustain collapsing to a diminished. The whole thing feels rotten, like a bad cover version of itself.
“This is the sound of someone losing the plot / Making out they’re OK when they are not,” Cocker sings over a creaking, horror movie guitar. If the song’s title hadn’t make it clear, the track is an ode to coked-out paranoia that doubles as the mise-en-scène for the existential vertigo of the songs to follow. The chorus arrives with a choir—screeching, hyperbolic, almost intolerable to listen to—a musical device associated with the ethereal and uplifting, twisted into something disturbing and overwrought.
These unsettling tweaks to Pulp’s signature disco pop are subtle—synth breaks that are a little too emphatic, horns that are a little too processed—but, in tandem with Cocker’s lyrics, underscore how the trusted and familiar can easily, and insidiously, turn foul without us really realizing it. None of it feels particularly intentional, or like the band is trying to make a statement. It’s Cocker and Pulp, off the cuff, the only way they know how to be.
After a career spent pulling back the curtain on the lives and worlds around him, Cocker here turns inward. Hardcore isn’t storytelling, but self-reflection. He sheds the dark horse self-loathing worn as proud armor on albums past, along with the ill-fitting skin of celebrity. There’s no ego or self-pity to it; actually, it’s often funny (“I am not Jesus, though I have the same initials”), a tool not to be undervalued given the album’s tough-to-swallow themes. Most often, though, it’s a frank reckoning with moral complexity, and how the hell we got here. Cocker may be famous, but in turning his incisive lens on himself, he holds a mirror to his audience.
Subsequent songs see him grappling with his father’s abandonment (“A Little Soul”), aging and marginalization (“Help the Aged”), social expectation (“I’m a Man”), and—what else would a Pulp record be?—sex, and its myriad implications, on the title track. Cocker trades the deviant, salacious appetite of past songs like “Pencil Skirt” and “I Spy” for something more clinical, likening success to the life of a porn star. It’s sex as rote dog-car chase (“That goes in there / And that goes in there, oooh / And then it's over”), sex as power (“This is me on top of you / And I can't believe that it took me this long”), sex as inevitable concession of modern life (“You can't be a spectator, oh no / You got to take these dreams and make them whole”). He cleaves at mystique and the seduction of that which is just out of reach, until we are left with nothing but ourselves, naked and alone.
The whole of Hardcore, in that way, plays like the unflinching anticlimax to Different Class; the amorous whimsy of “Something Changed” becomes the predictable relationship failure of “TV Movie”; the psychedelic youth of “Sorted for Es and Wizz” become the desperate, aging hedonists of “Party Hard”; the potential of “Disco 2000” becomes the mundanity and impotence of “Dishes.”
“I'd like to make this water wine, but it's impossible / I've got to get these dishes dry,” Cocker sings. Well, that’s life, isn’t it? “And aren't you happy just to be alive? / Anything's possible,” he belts in the next verse, his voice cracking and slightly off key, as if singing it bigger will somehow make it more true. Or maybe it’s a little too true. If we’re alive, none of us—and especially Cocker—really can complain, but that doesn’t make us feel any less empty. It’s a masterful reckoning of a familiar paradox that most of us would prefer not to parse, and makes for one of the most heartbreaking moments of the album.
Hardcore did well, hitting number one in the UK, but Pulp and its fair-weather fanbase were never really the same again. It’s a difficult album, and to an extent, you can’t really blame people for not wanting to hear their champions of the common people lamenting partying hard and getting older. But that’s not because, as with everyone from Elvis to Taylor Swift, its subject matter comes across as self-indulgent and unrelatable, but rather because it’s so relatable. Hardcore offers a brutally honest look at humanity’s dark side, the myth of meritocracy, and the fallacies and concessions we make to keep up with the competition in modern life. Today we lionize Radiohead for capturing that us vs. them disillusionment on OK Computer, but it’s Hardcore that offers the harder, more unflinching truth: We became them.
The reality of common people, overlooked by Cocker on the song version, is that we all settle, in one way or another. Hardcore is the OK Computer for those of us who chose to indulge and participate. And, if we’re honest, that’s everyone. We all choose pleasure if we can. We’d all be rich if we could. Thom Yorke DJs fashion week parties, but you won’t hear him reconciling with that on the next disaffected Radiohead joint. He’d likely argue, rightfully, that there are bigger, more corrupt fish to fry.
But that’s why it’s all the more important to have a band like Pulp, and an album like This Is Hardcore, there to connect the uncomfortable dots between The Everyman and The Man. Cocker looked around and saw the individualism he eulogized cannibalize the collective action and social conscience it was supposed to give rise to. It’s not hard to see the parallels today—the fleeting pop momentum of “Common People” in the momentary self-satisfaction of hashtag activism; the smug, Yorke-ian satisfaction that these issues aren’t your fault. The takeaway from Hardcore, and its story, is that change—real change—requires taking ownership of some sense of moral complexity and complicity. It’s a tough pill to swallow. Belying the perpetual culture shock of post-2016 life is the more difficult, personal truth that our good intentions don’t mean shit. This Is Hardcore is here to remind us of that—not a crisis of faith, but a shrug of, “I guess we had this coming.”
Andrea Domanick remembers the first time. Follow her on Twitter.