POP: Record of the week

Pulp: This is Hardcore (Island, CD/LP/tape). I must admit, I was worried. The follow-up to 1995's Different Class has been a long time coming, and in the meantime there have been whispers of writer's block - among other, more drastic problems - and two singles which weren't entirely encouraging: "Help the Aged" was too much like what we'd heard from the band already, and "This is Hardcore" was just the opposite, a creeping, desolate epic, not designed to get people singing along with the chorus. So it's an immense relief to report that, really, there was nothing to fear (although there is a track called "The Fear"). The thinking person's pop group are on cracking form, and you should put This is Hardcore on your 10 Best Albums of 1998 list now to save time later.

Pulp have moved on in the past two and a half years, though. Self-doubt and self-loathing is more prevalent than self-confidence, and Jarvis Cocker no longer claims to have all the answers. While the messages of "Mis- Shapes" and "Common People" were as clear as a Cortina's windscreen, on This is Hardcore, his observations are ambiguous and unresolved. This is an adult album, and not just in the sense that the title suggests.

Another difference is that the trademark Pulp sound has swollen, and has taken on some of the sprawling, monumental character necessary to compete with the Verve and Radiohead (if OK Computer was a Dark Side of the Moon for the Nineties, then This is Hardcore, disturbingly enough, is this decade's The Wall). Songs are given room to grow and flow; the abrasive, Velvet Underground-style guitars are right up at the front of the mix; and the album's final chord lasts 10 minutes.

The other main difference between Pulp past and Pulp present is that these are the band's most beautiful, melodic songs by far. "This is Hardcore" was a perverse choice of single (and not just in the sense that the title suggests): it's the least commercial thing here. Instead, they could have gone for "Party Hard", the closest the band have ever got to headbanging rock'n'roll; or "I'm a Man", Pulp meets Blur; the tidal trip-hop of "Seductive Barry"; or the exquisitely fragile "A Little Soul" or "TV Movie". "Glory Days" is the closest thing to a "Common People", not least because it contains the album's classic Jarvis joke: "I used to do the I Ching / But then I had to feed the meter. / Now I can't see into the future / But at least I can use the heater." It's good to have them back. Nicholas Barber

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