Dusting Off: Pulp’s Last Album

Posted by Tobias Carroll

The first thing you see, holding this record in your hands, is the cover. The design is stark, comprised entirely of text. First comes the name of the band, the font enormous and ornate, two letters across two lines:


Below that, smaller, resembling the sort of hand-punched labels that used to adorn my dad’s collection of reel-to-reel tape recordings, is the title:


That contrast sets up the album to come, one that’s alternately anthemic and anthropological, one that seems split in its mood between debaucherous reverie and a quiet intellectual retreat. It was Pulp’s last album, and — flipping the CD booklet over — you’ll see a band photo that finds them wedged into a well-worn van, holding up a tiny sign reading “bye”.

This isn’t necessarily the hit record — this isn’t Different Class or This is Hardcore; its songs haven’t become cult references or icons held up as badges of honor. When I talk about my fondness for this album, sometimes it’s met with eager reciprocity. More often, though, I get a shrug; and with it, an implied Are you really sure that’s the Pulp album you want to talk about? Maybe His ‘N’ Hers?

For me, listening to Pulp brings with it an overwhelming sense of regret. Strange, for a band that wrote some of the smartest pop songs of their day. But that’s the kicker: there’s a small circle of bands thats I’ve come to love, but whose music I never appreciated during the time they were actually making that music. Bands that played blocks from where I was living; bands that toured through New York and New Jersey plenty of times, but at whose shows I was never present. Bands whose albums I would hear long after their recording days had passed. (Unwound and Neutral Milk Hotel are Pulp’s two unlikely companions in this particular section of my own musical taxonomy.)

With Pulp, there’s a lot that feeds into this melancholy — both a sense that I’d missed out on the worlds they sketched so well in their lyrics and in the fact that they wrote some of the most blissfully catchy songs I’ve ever heard. But whenever I think of that regret in light of their last album, a dissonance comes to mind — something inherently strange about associating this particular band with that particular sensation.

This is, after all, an album that ends with a song called “Sunrise” — a song about coming to terms with moments about which you once felt distrust. It’s a song that builds slowly, ebbing and flowing, Jarvis Cocker’s voice cracking, sounding alternately mocking and tender. And finally, when he sings his last lines — “you’ve been awake all night, so why should you crash out at dawn?” — the band surges forward, accelerating towards ecstasy, building and building momentum before the song is — abruptly — done, the album is done, and the band’s had their final. And it’s that ecstatic mood that persists and overwhelms the melancholy that fills me whenever I hear Pulp’s music. It’s hard to  stay down when you think of their final statement, and the words at the bottom of its cover, ironic or not: We Love Life.