Pulp, Brixton Academy, 1 September 2011

4.00

In any area of life, comebacks can be a precarious business. At their best (George Foreman winning belts at 50, Johnny Cash’s haunting late work), they’re emotional, life-affirming and can send us into rose-tinted bliss about the individual’s early career. Get it wrong (Sugar Ray Leonard being duffed up by no-marks at 40, Amy Winehouse’s tragic shambling around in Belgrade) and you can sully your memory beyond repair.

The last couple of years have seen a slew of Britpoppers tempted into strapping on their Gibsons and give it another crack. After all, with more festivals than ever offering bumper paydays and nostalgic thirtysomethings queuing up to see their old favourites, why not? Blur and Suede have led the way; some lower-leaguers like Dodgy never really retired. Even Shed Seven are giving it another go.

Following the crowd, however, is a very un-Pulp thing to do. They always operated outside the norm, and when they did retire in 2002, they did so without acrimony, and for all the right reasons. Record sales were slowing; Jarvis was getting married to a stylist and moving to Paris; keyboardist Candida Doyle was apparently off to live in a shed in Maine.

So why return now? Cash, perhaps – although Jarvis has denied being offered a “duffel bag full of money”. Boredom, maybe. It’s hard to know for sure: the band have steadfastly refused to do press interviews since their reformation, giving the whole episode an alluring air of secrecy that Jarvis Cocker no doubt relishes.

Whatever the reason, it’s made a lot of people happy: since taking the stage at Primavera back in May for their first show in nearly a decade, the Sheffield gang have received rapturous festival receptions at T In The Park, the Isle of Wight, Reading, and the worst-kept “secret” gig of all time, at Glastonbury.

Little wonder. Now taking to the stage for what really could be their last show ever at Brixton Academy, the winning formula is still here. The band are note-perfect and seem to be both delighted and grateful to be on stage. Jarvis – who always seemed like a 47-year old man in his twenties – now is a 47-year old man, and his awkwardly twitchy, jagged dance moves seem somehow more comfy.

They open with a barnstorming “Do You Remember the First Time” (as they always used to, and did at their 2002 “farewell” gig), the six-piece bolstered by guest Richard Hawley’s distinctive Gretch guitar. But it’s no greatest hits show: lesser-know tracks like “Razzmatazz”, “Sheffield Sex City” and “Bar Italia” get an airing, while the brooding, downbeat “This Is Hardcore” showcases the depth of the band’s songwriting, which always did traverse airy pop to the sinister and sleazy with ease. A trio of backing singers arrive for a brilliant take on “Trees” from their under-rated final album, We Love Life, while the dynamic solo and reprise on “Sunrise” proves that this are a collective who can really play, as well as write songs.

Inevitably, though, it’s the hits that send the crowd into a frenzy: “Babies”, “Disco 2000”, “Sorted For Es and Wizz”, “Mis-Shapes”, “Lipgloss” and the roof-raising “Common People” have lost none of their power, as Cocker mounts amps, air-kicks and gesticulates like a man possessed.

They end proceedings with a surprise, the low-key “Wickerman”, and Jarvis bids us farewell with the suggestion that, although this could well be Pulp’s last stand, it also may not be. “I hope we do meet in the street some time in the future,” he says. “In the meantime, float on.” As far as renaissances go, this one has been a triumph – more Pink Floyd at Live 8 than Apollo Creed in Rocky Four. Perhaps they should quit while they’re ahead.

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