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Pulp

This Is Hardcore

Island

Just a couple of years ago, Pulp was the hot new face (after more than a decade together) on the Britpop block, and frontman Jarvis Cocker garnered headlines (and untold admiration) for disrupting what he felt was Michael Jackson's ostentatious performance at the 1996 BRIT Awards. That, and the group's solidly cohesive album, Different Class (powered by the hit "Common People"), were enough to put Pulp on the map in the US, though Oasis wasn't breaking a competitive sweat. On This is Hardcore, the quintet reaches further and with greater ambition, creating a thematic song cycle that sacrifices the jangle of its predecessor for a heavier dynamic palette that hews towards David Bowie and Roxy Music.

Hardcore's thirteen songs track the perils of aging and diminishing vitality ("Help the aged/ One time they were just like you"), as lovers come and go and find ways to torture each other along the way -- when they're not raking themselves over the emotional coals, that is. What's particularly striking is the frank self-realization of Cocker's characters: the swinging bachelor who admits his loneliness in "The Fear;" the former playboy who now sits at home and does the "Dishes;" the father who counsels his son to avoid his wayward mistakes in "A Little Soul;" and the soundly beaten protagonist of "Like a Friend," who welcomes a lover back in to kick him around some more.

There's an inherent prettiness to these tunes, and Pulp gives each a musically noir setting -- a series of rich, cinematic soundscapes composed of guitars, strings, keyboards, and occasional beds of backing vocals. The bracing drone of "The Fear" yields to the loungey sparseness of "Dishes," which in turn flows into the Spiders From Mars guitar attack of "Party Hard." "A Little Soul" flows along a groove ripped from Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' "Tracks of My Tears," while Marvin Gaye meets Bryan Ferry in the winding orchestrations of "Seductive Barry" (a twisted nod to the master of the satin sheets himself), which features a guest vocal from Neneh Cherry.

Despite its hour-plus length, Hardcore ends with a bang on the anthemic drive of "Glory Days," "The Day After the Revolution," and the mid-song rock-out of the otherwise spare "Like a Friend." If Different Class gave Pulp new standing in the pop world, This is Hardcore nudges the group up a notch or two, displaying the kind of emotional resonance few of its peers and contemporaries have managed to achieve.

--Morgan P. Engle