The second summer of love traded LSD, kaftans and guitars for MDMA, smileys and drum machines, but the second summer of Britpop looks eerily like the first. The lager, combat trousers and indie anthems are back, as if borne on a boomerang through time and space – or perhaps they never went away, and the past three decades have been a bad dream from which we are slowly waking. That was certainly the feeling when Pulp took the stage at St Anne’s Park in Dublin on a recent June evening. The Tories are in crisis, Labour is preparing for power, Blur are about to release a new record, Jarvis Cocker is singing about meeting up in the year 2000. The sun is shining and the weather is sweet. Might this actually be 1995?
Alas, no: “It’s nice to be in Europe,” Jarvis says, jolting us back to the post-Brexit present, from where we can see – with the help of three giant video screens – that his pale, dandyish features have been a little grizzled by the years (and are perhaps reminded that this is a man who in 2020 wrote a book about the stuff he found in his loft). Zoom out, though, and he has not changed at all. In a dark velvet suit and platform shoes, he moves just like he used to, wrists flicking, hips wiggling, legs straddling whatever is available, digits performing sleight-of-hand magic around the microphone, arms working their sexy semaphores. His shapes-per-minute rate may have slowed, but the poses are the same: the Disco Kitchener, the Art Rooster, the trademark “Here’s My Spout”. There are not many musicians instantly recognisable by their silhouette: Michael Jackson is one of them, but so is his old nemesis Jarvis Cocker.
Opening with the Euro-disco melodrama of “I Spy” (containing the immortal line “Take your year in Provence and shove it up your ass”) and finishing with their defining hit “Common People”, Pulp’s set cleaved to their breakthrough 1995 album, Different Class. On that record, the band’s fourth, Cocker’s songs of innocence and experience were beefed up with slick production and choruses which, even when describing the dividing lines of sex and class, offered a sense of solidarity (“We’re coming out of the sidelines”, “Sing along with the common people”, “Let’s all meet up…”) that made them even more contagious. If their anthems have in the intervening decades worn somewhat thin from overuse, tonight the band give them an undeniable energy and freshness. “This performance is an encore,” reads the video screen before the performance: “An encore is played when the audience want more.” And Pulp’s 525th concert, the third of this reunion tour, really did have the simple, uncynical, crowd-pleasing joy of a sustained curtain call.
[See also: The Britpop nostalgia complex]
“Mis-shapes”, a glorious “revenge of the nerds” fantasy, is pared back slightly so that the spiky guitar riff cuts through, but it’s a rare tweak: this is no place for “reimaginings”. Candida Doyle (keyboards), Nick Banks (drums) and Mark Webber (perhaps the only indie guitarist who could be mistaken for a Treasury official) are joined by a string section and a couple of guests, including the band’s former guitarist Richard Hawley (Cocker pays tribute to the Pulp bassist Steve Mackey, who died in March). Beyond Different Class, there are songs from His ‘n’ Hers (1994) and We Love Life (2001), as well as a highly entertaining version of “This is Hardcore”, the baroque title track from Pulp’s 1998 “comedown” album. The darkness of that record is tempered tonight by an exuberant performance from Jarvis, who scampers and drapes himself across the stage’s illuminated steps, singing “That goes in there… and that goes in there…” in a manner that somehow evokes not only a soulless porn shoot but someone telling the removals men where to unload their crockery.
Revisiting any culture from the Nineties is a reminder of how much attitudes to sex and gender have changed. Why, then, does it seem oddly unproblematic to listen to a 59-year-old man describe a variety of sexual fantasies? It may be because, although sex is his key theme, Jarvis is too good a writer – too clever, too witty, too observant – to produce work that feels crude or manipulative. Within a single song he can shift perspectives from youth to adulthood or male to female and switch back and forth between the real and imagined, the specific and universal. In “Babies”, a boy hides in the wardrobe to see what happens when his friend’s older sister brings boys back to her room – but the dodgy voyeurism gives way to an awkward romantic declaration to his friend that jumbles up lust and love, procreation and experimentation, in an endearingly confused way : “I want to take you home / I want to give you children / You might be my girlfriend”. The weakness of “Common People”, which ends tonight’s set, in a raucous rendition, is that its neat storytelling doesn’t allow room for Jarvis’s sly ambiguities – but that’s also, of course, what makes it a certified banger.
There’s no denying that 1995 is a different country – Jarvis knows it, which is presumably why he feels the need to explain a line in “Disco 2000” (“Your house was very small / With wood chip on the wall”) by projecting a close-up photo of the wallpaper in question, and why the show’s visuals are scattered with mood-enhancing references to the band’s heyday. Jarvis Cocker (who almost certainly has saved some wood chip in his loft) does not like change: plastic Marmite lids, apparently, upset him greatly. But the nostalgia at work tonight does not feel fussy or regressive. Instead it’s a collective affirmation that this was a band who, for a while, managed to bottle something magical – and a celebration of the fact that there’s still some left to share around.
Pulp play the Isle of Wight Festival on 15 June, with more live dates throughout July.
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out