Home Music Holy Hell Holy Hell! We Love Life Turns 20

Holy Hell! We Love Life Turns 20

By the start of the new millennium, Pulp was in the middle of an identity crisis. The Britpop wave that brought them their greatest success with their masterpiece Different Class had crashed out, and their post-Britpop hangover album This Is Hardcore, while brilliant in fits and starts, showed all of the telltale signs of a band that was unsure of what to do next. To be fair, though, this wasn’t exactly uncharted territory for Jarvis Cocker and company; by the 2000s, Pulp had existed for about 20 years, and a few stylistic changes had preceded their eventual breakthrough. Even so, a cursory listen to We Love Life gives the impression that Pulp’s final album was an attempt to have it not be Pulp’s final album. Here, the danceable rhythms and sexual come-ons that characterized Pulp at their peak have all but been abandoned; in their place is a more meditative collection of songs that take a distinctly inward gaze.

By most accounts, the process of creating We Love Life was difficult. The band was determined to rip up the script entirely, so it was perhaps inevitable that attempting to work with producer Chris Thomas (who worked behind the boards on both Class and Hardcore) would end up being a fruitless endeavor. That said, the complete shift in style offered by his replacement, cult singer-songwriter Scott Walker, was unprecedented. Whereas Thomas had labored to craft a sleek, urbane sound for the band, Walker was himself coming off one of the most daring musical gambits of his career in Tilt, and his more esoteric approach to songwriting ended up infusing itself into Cocker’s work on the album. The bubbling synths of Different Class are completely absent on We Love Life, which chooses to make the guitar its focal point. The album begins uncharacteristically with a strummed acoustic guitar, and the rest of the songs are arranged in a very loose, naturalistic way that seems to draw attention to the interplay between acoustic and electric instruments. What’s more, the album keeps itself set at a fairly even tempo throughout; it sways rather than thumps, and its songs appear structured to reward repeated listens rather than grab the listener immediately. Cocker is reluctant to call We Love Life a “folk” album, and to do so would be reductive, but it hews far closer to folk than to anything else in Pulp’s discography.

As the band’s approach to arrangements changed on We Love Life, so, too, did Cocker’s songwriting perspective. As stated before, this is by far Pulp’s least horny album; while love and relationships inevitably appear as lyrical topics, the ravenous sex beast that Cocker occasionally played on albums past is gone. Instead, the album takes a more reflective approach on the personal and political. A not-insignificant portion of the album isn’t really songs at all; songs like “Weeds II (The Origin of the Species)” and “Wickerman” feature Cocker monologuing in his lowest register about class politics, the meaning of life and other ideas that happened to have crossed his mind at the moment. Cocker shows a fondness for natural imagery throughout the album, almost as if he’s borrowing from the Romantic notion of trying to understand humanity through the lens of the natural world. Yet even this can’t escape his inherent cynicism; “The Trees,” for example, finds him lamenting the existence of trees for keeping him alive in a world where he is left alone. Cocker espouses on the fragility of human relationships often throughout the album; his speakers are either desperately hanging on to what they have (“The Birds in Your Garden”), or they’re bitterly sneering at the people who have left them (“Bad Cover Version”). It’s a lyrical mood that very much suits Cocker as a songwriter, but the real question that We Love Life has to answer is: does this mode of songwriting suit Pulp as a band?

We Love Life was very well-received upon its initial release as a welcome and necessary evolution of Pulp’s sound, but through modern ears, one has to wonder if it was an evolution too far. While the album’s songs can be quite striking in their beauty, they lack the immediate hooks that Pulp so often wrote and performed with ease, and Cocker’s lyrics had morphed into the sort of image-heavy narratives of a Walker type as opposed to the instinctual hedonism that had defined the band at their critical and commercial peak. Add this to the fact that the band was insistent on doing as many things differently as they could during the recording process, and one is left considering if We Love Life is Pulp’s Ship of Theseus: if you remove all of the things about Pulp that made them what they were, is the end result even a Pulp album at all?

Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that We Love Life would end up being Pulp’s last album. In pushing the band completely outside of their comfort zone, Cocker seemed to have realized the limitations that working under the Pulp banner had on the kinds of songs that he wanted to write going forward. In truth, a more meditative, mature Pulp album was always something that was going to be bizarre on the face of it, and while We Love Life is a very good album otherwise, it’s quite clearly the sound of a band trying to be something that they’re not. Even so, We Love Life’s uniqueness in Pulp’s overall catalog will likely earn it the sort of cult following an album like this deserves, and it’s worth wandering through the album’s winding hedge maze at least once, even if it doesn’t give the same youthful thrills that one may come to expect. After all, those late-night parties can’t last forever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Descendents: 9th & Walnut

Inevitably, the album doesn’t have the same spark of the Descendents at their best. But th…