Given the commercial and critical success of Pulp’s Brit pop defining run of 1990s albums, from 1994’s His n Hers to 1998’s This Is Hardcore, it’s hard to assess their many years of work beforehand as anything other than a comparative failure.
Started by teen Jarvis Coker and his friend Peter Dalton in 1978 the Sheffield band continued throughout the 1980s with Cocker assembling different musicians throughout the period and finding very little success at each turn.
With this year marking the 20th anniversary of their 1992 album Separations, Fire Records, their label though much of this period of failure, decided now is a good time to reissue the album in addition to their first two albums, It and Freaks
As one of the many that first heard Pulp when His n Hers came out I’m hearing these albums for the first time. My assumption had been that a lack of luck rather than talent had stymied their search for success. Turns out though that in the case of It and Freaks success evaded them because quite simply they were not very good. Separations on the other hand shows that after more than a decade of try outs something had finally clicked and the Brit-popping Pulp sound we reminisce about today was born.
What is most striking about It is the lack of keyboards and its folk direction. It (1983) is a world away from the power and pop sensibility of Mercury Music nomination His n Hers. As a debut its pretty dire, with only the occasional flashes of the brilliance of later work. The major problem is Cocker’s voice. It’s just awful here, all nasally like a bad Morrisey impression. I’m sure in his head he thinks he sounds like Scott Walker. In reality on this and Freaks he sounds like the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s Vivian Stanshall singing about pink halves of drainpipes.
The songs too, while upbeat are largely forgettable. There’s no clever, bittersweet lyrics, no sweeping flourishes. Only opener My Lighthouse, co-written by Cocker and Simon Hinkler, who later left Pulp to join the Mission, emerges with credibility.
They moved in a slightly harder direction with Freaks (1987) with a more traditional and basic indie rock electric guitar, bass and drums feel to it. It was to be no more successful for the band. Freaks is a real mess with Cocker still sounding like Stanshall and horribly out of tune in places, especially on I Want You. You’d think that would have been ironed out at the time. Opener Fairground is probably the worst track, at best a parody of the Wonderstuff and at worst a genuine attempt to recreate Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge in a fairground. Masters of the Universe sounds like The Damned, but not in a good way.
Separations is the real find here for those that came to the band from the His n Hers or Different Class period. This is arguably the first recognisable Pulp album and one the cool kids with their finger on the pulse of new music in 1992 should have quite rightly held up proudly as their new favourite band.
Adding synths to the mix was a master stroke giving tracks such as Love is Blind a real identifiable Pulp sound. Cocker’s vocals have improved markedly as well and as a result tracks on the first half of the album such as Don’t You Want Me Anymore sounds credible and epic rather than laughable and sad. The placing of violin high in the mix also gives it a welcome difference to later, more successful albums and Freaks. The second half descends a little into a kind of indie, acid house mix on tracks such as My Legendary Girlfriend, but the genre shift is not too glaring and the first half is so good it more than makes up for a weak finale to the album.
It and Freaks are worth buying for curiosity value, but for a genuinely good album Separations is the pick of this trio.
By Joe Lepper