More erudite than Blur and, in their own special way, more brazen than Oasis, Pulp were cordoned off as outsiders during the Britpop boom of the 90s. But they were never a mere Britpop band, anyway. Forget that His ’N’ Hers was released a week before Parklife, or that Oasis had started to go “Supersonic” with their debut single; Pulp might have been lumped in with that lot, but as Jarvis Cocker and co would celebrate in a later song, they were misfits, and His ’N’ Hers, their fourth album, offered an unsparing glimpse at the British class system that birthed (and rejected) them.
Here lay Scott Walker kitchen-sink dramas given a twist of Serge Gainsbourg smut and an art-rock sheen pilfered from the back of a Roxy Music tour bus. For many listeners, Pulp arrived with their first Top 40 single, “Do You Remember The First Time?,” a kind of unrequited-love letter from a bedsit bachelor pining for the ex he lost his virginity to. But you don’t get to write these kinds of smart, catchy, subversive songs without having been around the block a few times. Pulp had actually formed 16 years prior to the release of His ’N’ Hers – enough time to learn their craft, weather bitter disappointments, and realize that, to be true observers, you had to stand apart from the mainstream.
Thrust towards the limelight
His ’N’ Hers may have thrust Pulp towards the limelight, but, like many of the characters Jarvis sang about, they always seemed more comfortable as voyeurs – a recurring subject throughout Pulp’s career, but one never so perfectly explored as on “Babies.” Spying on a female friend’s sister having sex? Check. Turning it into a confused daydream in which “I want to give you children” presages the thought that “You might be my girlfriend”? Why not. Finding yourself caught in flagrante with the sister “because she looks like you”? Seems the only outcome…
Desperation; thwarted romantic ambitions; an anthemic tune that distracts from some of the grubbiness – this was Pulp’s rebirth in full effect. But there was biting satire here, too. “A promo video is simply an advert for a song” ran the title card in front of the “Babies” video. But for the full power of Jarvis’ sardonic observations, you have to turn to His ’N’ Hers’ opener, “Joyriders.”
Nothing joyful here. The song’s scuzzy guitar riff sets the tone for a bunch of vandals causing a ruckus in a small city center (“We don’t look for trouble/But if it comes we don’t run”). But while the bluster is undercut by the declaration, “We like women/“Up the women, we say/And if we get lucky/We might even meet some one day” – delivered with minimum flash for maximum droll humor – the buffoonery careens into a truly sinister ending. “Mister, we just want your car/’Cause we’re taking a girl to the reservoir/Oh, all the papers say/It’s a tragedy… but don’t you want to come and see?” No details are given, but such is Jarvis’ masterful storytelling, we have everything we need – or want – to know right here.
Where “the modern-day Pulp was born”
And so His ’N’ Hers’ opposing strands become clear: deep yearnings and adolescent fumbles pitted against pent-up frustrations that tip over into something altogether darker. “Have You Seen Her Lately?” mixes small-town gossip with a lifeline for lost souls; “Lipgloss” and the masterful “Pink Glove” look at what happens when the glamour’s gone and the rot has set in; and if “Do You Remember The First Time?” presents itself as a synth-pop anthem for indie dancefloors the world over, its mix of bravado and self-analytical desperation is pretty much impossible to find anywhere else in chart history.
This, Jarvis has said, is where “the modern-day Pulp was born.” For those who’d missed His ’N’ Hers’ release, on April 18, 1994, they couldn’t fail to take notice of the group’s triumphant Glastonbury headline slot the following year. But while that would make Jarvis and co household names overnight, His ’N’ Hers bears witness to the true Pulp: coming around uninvited, peeking through your blinds, and rummaging through your underwear… hiding in cupboards, just waiting to catch a glimpse.