It had been three and a half years since Pulp released an album, and everything had changed. The band’s whole existence had already been a long, strange trip — from youthful iterations mostly existing in obscurity in the ‘80s, to beginning to incorporate more dance influences, to the massive breakthroughs during Britpop’s mid-‘90s heyday. After all of that, there was the crash landing of 1998’s This Is Hardcore — the fallout from fame and partying, the ugly and bleak late nights on the other side of everything. That, in a way, could’ve already been Pulp’s conclusion. It was an endpoint from the stories they told on His ’N’ Hers and Different Class, and it arrived in the 1997/1998 moment when Britpop was undergoing its great collective comedown, as the albums sprawled and egos frayed and the whole heady moment had gone about as far as it could go.
Presumably, This Is Hardcore almost was the ending. Pulp struggled to work on a followup, originally embarking on sessions with Chris Thomas, who had produced their last two albums. Those were aborted, and the band wondered whether the songs were any good; to hear Jarvis Cocker tell it, a performance of the new track “Sunrise” at Reading Festival in 2000 helped buoy their spirits. Then they partnered with the legendary Scott Walker, who helped them shepherd a strange, unexpected new Pulp album out into the world. That album, We Love Life, arrived 20 years ago today in the UK. It would be their final album, and it stands now as an oft-overlooked epilogue and resolution to all that came before.
At the time, We Love Life was presented and regarded as something brighter or more hopeful than This Is Hardcore. Oddly, it was sometimes even written about as a return to form after This Is Hardcore‘s sordid dead-ends, as if suggesting the latter didn’t stand up to its predecessors and complete Pulp’s great ‘90s trilogy. No matter one’s personal opinion of This Is Hardcore, however, it was clear the Pulp of We Love Life was in a different space. The name could come across as sarcastic, and there were a great many lyrics on the album that suggested a supposedly rosier outlook hadn’t quite taken hold of the band. But in the moment, there was at least some definitive tonal and stylistic overhaul.
Much was made of We Love Life‘s more nature-oriented aesthetic and themes. Cocker talked often about how he was looking to nature more — a jarring shift for a band that was always sleek and urbane, the poets of late-night misadventures in city centers. The more theoretically bucolic setting of We Love Life was a bit more complicated than that, but the music did mirror a more organic, lived-in approach, with Candida Doyle’s synths taking a backseat to evocative string arrangements and Mark Webber’s guitars, ranging from acoustic and rough-hewn to jangling and shimmery. The songs were strong — the twilit reflection of “The Trees,” the autumnal flickers of “Bob Lind (The Only Way Is Down),” the way “Bad Cover Version” managed to update a would-be old Britpop ballad with more grey at the temples. Pulp were successfully carving out a new sound for themselves that, while not without its connections to their past, seemed to point a way forward for all the post-Britpop years to come.
Lyrically, though, We Love Life told a very different story. Maybe it wasn’t as obviously strung-out and depleted as This Is Hardcore, but there were a whole lot of lyrics on We Love Life that dwelled on mortality, time passed and things nearly forgotten. There’s a wistfulness to “The Trees,” one of the most evocative pop songs on the album, mulling over withered love and life disappearing back to the earth: “I carved your name with a heart just above/ Now swollen, distorted, unrecognizable like our love/ The smell of leaf mold and the sweetness of decay/ Are the incense at the funeral procession here today.” It’s not the only time that death and decomposition parallel romantic collapse: “A deer lay dying in the road/ Maybe I should have seen it as some kind of sign/ Except I don’t believe in them no more,” Cocker sings on “Roadkill.”
“A bad cover version of love is not the real thing,” he sings elsewhere. “Bad Cover Version” is a bitter post-breakup take that then, in characteristically hilarious Cocker fashion, goes on to compare the disappointment of subsequent relationships to the Stones since the ‘80s and the Tom And Jerry cartoons where they could talk. At the same time, Cocker’s ongoing grappling with celebrity and pop success could be rearing its head as a greater disenchantment with the whole endeavor — the Stones since the ‘80s perhaps also a warning to themselves to not run this thing into the ground in the Britpop postscript. Throughout the album, there is a worn, haggard quality — maybe a bit more grounded and matter-of-fact than This Is Hardcore, but something approaching closure in the form of the decision that Pulp had run out of road. When you get to “I Love Life,” it plays like an intentional, desperate effort to really believe the phrase.
Yet as much as Pulp might’ve sounded like they feared being washed up, the album is inspired. We Love Life still sits outside the main Britpop narrative, but Pulp had certainly fared better than some of their peers in the post-peak years. We Love Life is a strong album, all the more entrancing for how it exists to the side of much louder, more ubiquitous classics. Within it, you have some of Pulp’s greatest achievements hidden away. That is perhaps truest of “Wickerman,” the album’s shadowy centerpiece. It finds Cocker returning to long-lost memories and loves in Sheffield, the post-industrial town he remembered fading further into the rearview. It’s one of the band’s long, shape-shifting epics, winding like a ghostly wind until Cocker reaches his conclusion over dramatic, cinematic strings.
Then there’s We Love Life’s calling card, “Sunrise,” the closer of Pulp’s career. “I used to hate the sun/ Because it shone on everything I’d done/ Made me feel that all that I had done/ Was overfill the ashtray of my life,” Cocker sings in the beginning, like transposing Mick Jagger’s “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me” to a middle-aged reckoning. Clearer than any other moment on We Love Life, it feels like a goodbye to the Pulp we knew and, for Cocker, the whole pop-musician life altogether. “But you’ve been awake all night/ So why should you crash out at dawn?” he asks, his final parting words on a Pulp album, and then “Sunrise” erupts into its great, cathartic outro of lacerating guitars and choral denouements. One last run, but also a true finale. Musically, it’s the exact kind of passage where the credits roll on one chapter of your life and all your memories tumble through your head in rapid-fire succession.
By the end of 2002, Pulp were no more. A nine-year hiatus ensued, during which Cocker thought about retiring from making music entirely, before getting roped back in to write for Nancy Sinatra, which in turn spurred his 2006 solo debut Jarvis. Even then, he hasn’t always seemed particularly interested in the life anymore; after 2009’s Further Complications, there was a yawning 11-year gap until Cocker released Beyond The Pale in the summer of 2020. During that interim, Pulp returned for a triumphant reunion tour. There were maybe some hints of a new future: Cocker at one point saying he was working on new songs, the fact that they released a new version of “After You” — originally a demo from the We Love Life sessions — and letting the prospect of a Pulp reunion album produced by a then-retired James Murphy just hang there. But it’s been almost another 10 years now, and when promoting Beyond The Pale Cocker pretty much shut down any possibility for Pulp to return again, stating the tour had gone about as perfectly as he could expect and provided a “satisfying end.”
Twenty years later, all the obvious markers of We Love Life’s finality remain mostly true, then. In many ways, it’s hard to imagine Pulp having continued on to a more logical conclusion. The landscape was changing around them, and on We Love Life they seemed happy to exist outside the trends of the moment. But within that, they found a way to hang it up and go out on a high note. It’s a weathered, conversational high note, but a high note nonetheless. After tearing through the wild tabloid frenzy of Britpop and a million dance floors and nights out, Pulp took a cue from the characters Cocker depicted on We Love Life. They emerged one more time, then let themselves get overtaken by the currents of time and nature, disappearing into the past.