Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker gives good entrance. “I am not Jesus, ‘though I have the same initials,” goes the first line of “Dishes” on “This Is Hardcore”. Or take the opening salvo in “TV Movie”: “Without you my life has become a hangover without end/A movie made for TV: bad dialogue, bad acting, no interest.”
Cocker’s songs don’t veer downhill after they begin, either. In the time since his Noel Coward-in-the-London-underground observations on Pulp’s 1996 album “Different Class,” Cocker has been working even harder at his craft. “This Is Hardcore” is a series of poignant or pungent vignettes about confused or lonely people. “Seductive Barry” fantasizes about making love to the object of his obsession; “A Little Soul” about a defeated husband who beats his wife and pleads with his son not to repeat dad’s mistakes.
When Cocker writes what are presumably autobiographical lyrics, he’s no less piercing or clever. The withering “Like a Friend” finds him both repulsed by and attracted to a fake friend: “You take up my time like some cheap magazine when I could’ve been learning something.” Compared to the unimaginative language of so much pop and rock, Cocker’s lyrics — enriched by his dry, jaundiced-dandy voice — are literary salons unto themselves.
“Different Class” was a debauched update of vintage new wave styles. “This Is Hardcore” is more expansive and more stylish than its predecessor, integrating sweeping string sections and over-the-top, big-rock production touches. “Help the Aged,” Cocker’s ode to lessons gleaned from the elderly, deftly leaps from an after-hours fragility to arena roar. In “Dishes,” Cocker attempts to comfort his mate after a hard days’ work. “I’d like to make this water wine, but it’s impossible/I’ve got to get these dishes dry,” he sings, voice on the verge of cracking, as the music surges into sublime cabaret-pop beauty.
Cocker’s grander statements about Today’s Youth, tucked away toward the album’s end, are less satisfying, and the music grows a tad bloated too. Still, you have to love anyone who uses the words “rave,” “cholesterol” and “Bergerac” in one song. Tucked away in the liner notes is an odd little statement: “Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings.” Sorry, Jarvis — sometimes it can’t be helped.