There’s a sadness in the voice of Jarvis Cocker. Putting aside his stage histrionics, his pompous bravado, wild flailing limbs and overt sexuality, there’s a certain vulnerability there. I never really heard his songs as the vile and contentious send-offs they appear to be in surface– I always felt like, even though he is saying some pretty awful words about the characters who populate these tunes, and even though he sings these words with all the caustic bitterness of early Elvis Costello, there’s something going on in the subtext. Beneath all the sneers and digs and scoffs, there’s a frightened man lashing out because he doesn’t know what else to do. It’s as if the protagonist’s misfortune in a song like “Lipgloss” was entirely imagined by the narrator; the embittered fantasies of bruised male ego, of a lover scorned.
I’ve always preferred Pulp to their contemporaries in the mid-90s “Britpop” explosion. Blur didn’t really find their strengths as songwriters ’til the late 90s, releasing a string of irritatingly bouncy radio jingles for the better part of the decade (but redeeming themselves with the release of the outstanding “13”). Suede never really appealed to me as they seemed to be more into sounding good than writing good songs (this is the uninformed and ignorant opinion of someone who only listened to one of their albums; I am happy to be proven wrong). And Oasis were just vile– rock and roll at its most superficial, uninspired and unexciting. A turgid mess of a band with less than half a dozen good songs across their entire career.
Pulp, by contrast, had everything that I liked about that era of music– Beatles melodicism, post-punk ferociousness, ear-candy pop arrangements and a sense of humor. They also had a humanity to their songs that seemed to be lacking amidst all the bullshit posturing about “Cigarettes and Alcohol”. Their songs told stories fraught with disappointment, failure, longing, jealousy and neuroses. “Disco 2000”, one of their higher-charting singles, has a chorus that goes: “I never knew that you’d get married and I would be living down here on my own, on that damp and lonely Thursday years ago”, over a poppy disco beat and synth lines. An unlikely chorus to be singing loudly along with 300 other drunken strangers in a dance floor, but I’ve found myself in that exact situation several times.
As much as I enjoy those songs, my favorites will always be the ones in which they embrace those themes in their music as well as their lyrics. Pulp are gifted songwriters, with the ability to come up with lush, elegant pop melodies that sound plucked right out of Phil Spector’s back catalog. Beautiful songs like “A Little Soul”, “Something Changed” and “Like a Friend” manage to inject just enough energy into these melodies to keep them from sounding like maudlin laments (or folk ballads); “Like a Friend”, in particular, builds to a glorious explosion of cacophonic pop brilliance, contrasting with the previous section beautifully.
But the song that captured my imagination this particular evening– the song that I’ve been listening to over and over for the last couple of hours– is “Roadkill”, from Pulp’s wonderful album “We Love Life”.
“We Love Life” is probably Pulp’s most subdued album, lacking most of the shimmery pop choruses of “A Different Class” or the explosive arrangements of “This is Hardcore”. Instead, much of this album is acoustic, laid back and rich in melody. This particular song, “Roadkill”, is probably the quietest track in the album, and it’s absolutely disarming both musically and lyrically.
The song is sparse in its arrangement, based on the interplay of two simple guitar lines. You can hear the rumble of a bowed contrabass, as well as an ingenious use of the violin as a feedback instrument. The background coloring on the track is tasteful and understated, never drowning out Cocker’s subtle yet deeply emotional vocal performance but instead accenting and augmenting the melodic turns. The sound of this song is something that always strikes me, as it sounds just like the defeated sadness conveyed in the lyrics. Another story song, but economical in its narration; the tale is presented to us in list form. “The feel of my arm around your waist, the pale blue nightdress that you wore. Your hair in braids, your sailor top: the things I don’t see anymore.” The slight echo in the vocals underscoring the loneliness and yearning, the profound grayness of living in the absence of the object of his longing.
“You lost your suitcase in my hotel room,
a subway token from your Ma,
the sun reflecting off the water on your face”.
The tiny snapshots, souvenirs of remembrance, the dust that collects in the corner of our memory– the small things that can be utterly devastating.
Listen to the gorgeous track “Roadkill” by clicking the audio player below:
“Bedhead Melodies” is a sporadically-updated post series in which I write about songs, like this one, that reveal themselves to me in the late hours of the night, or early hours of the morning, and usually get me pretty emotional. I might sometimes be drunk while I’m writing these, but it’s not a rule. These are sad songs, these are delicate songs, but they’re beautiful songs. And after an entry in which I wrote 1500 words about The Offspring, it’s good to have these as palate cleansers. You can check out the other songs in the “Bedhead Melodies” series by clicking here.