Pulp – It, Freaks & Separations (2012 reissues)

Since belatedly finding fame on the back of 1994’s His ‘N’ Hers, Pulp founder Jarvis Cocker has often had an ambivalent and strained relationship with his recently reunited band’s early catalogue.  For Cocker, the hard slog of Pulp’s protracted formative phase against the backdrop of dole-stricken poverty, critical/commercial indifference, multiple line-up shifts and personal injury has understandably tainted his view of his fledgling releases.  Moreover, contractual and financial tension over the ownership and repeated reissuing of Pulp’s early-’80s to early-’90s wares has seemingly further soured Cocker’s perspective on the material.  Hopefully though, with the healing passing of time and his own fondness for esoteric record collecting being expressed through his latter-day DJ detours (on BBC 6Music in particular), Cocker won’t begrudge us exploring this latest – and most lovingly-conceived to date – Pulp reissue campaign.  In fact, these rekindled Fire reissues come very close to being the definitive archival presentations of early-Pulp; reawakening the first three studio albums in remastered form to be bolstered by associated non-album singles/rarities and housed inside refreshed packaging featuring surprisingly insightful sleeve-notes from usually self-indulgent veteran music scribe Everett True.

Pulp - It

Tardily following on from a nascent 1981 Peel session of spirited almost post-punk juvenilia, Pulp’s 1983 debut album It is probably the most atypical collection in the band’s entire studio canon.  Whilst its folk-pop sensibilities may have once jarred with fans that only caught up with the Pulp in the midst of the Britpop boom, today It sounds surprisingly fresh.  Sure, the production values feel a tad on the anaemic side and at times Cocker croons over-earnestly with a weakness for sixth form poeticism, but overall the album is a lushly-arranged and buoyantly melodic minor pastoral pleasure.  Individual highlights include the lilting “My Lighthouse” (with its warm Byrdsian chime meets pre-Belle & Sebastian feyness); the yearning “Blue Girls” (featuring female backing vocals seemingly cribbed from an early Leonard Cohen long-player and some fragrant acid-folk flutes); the joyous brass-boosted “Love Love” (containing cross-bred hints of The Kinks and Too-Rye-Ay-era Dexy’s Midnight Runners); and the gorgeous uplifting finale of “Looking For Life” (delivered with swelling organs, Spector-ish drums and near-to-gospel vocals).  Four bonus tracks extend the It-period story a little further, with the carnivalesque garage-pop of “Please Don’t Worry” (from the first Peel session) and the previously unreleased lo-tech synth-pop of “Sink Or Swim” being more interesting than alternate versions of “My Lighthouse” and “Blue Girls.”  Unfortunately however, the entirety of the 1981 Peel session and the non-album “Everybody’s Problem”/“There Was…” 7” didn’t make the cut of this reissue, perhaps due to licensing issues.

Pulp - Freaks

By the time of 1987’s Freaks LP, Pulp had experienced a number of roll-call changes and personal hardships, however two new key members – violinist/guitarist Russell Senior and keyboard-player Candida Doyle – had managed to find themselves recruited for the long-haul.  Consequently, Freaks is a collection of multiple personalities; switching between bleak, romantic and occasionally deranged moods with far more muscular arrangements than It.  At its best, the record finds Pulp pulling together with a more defined and bespoke democratic vision, as illustrated by the lovelorn “I Want You” (which almost feels like a prequel to “Underwear” from Different Class); the raucous Balkan swirl of “The Never-Ending Story”; the mordantly pretty “Don’t You Know”; the epic tension and release tide riding narrative of “Being Followed Home”; and the enjoyably eccentric “Fairground” (which essentially imagines Tom Waits lassoing Nick Cave’s “The Carny”, with demented storyteller vocals from Senior).  Elsewhere, Freaks is a more uneven affair.  Whilst “Master Of The Universe” is a well-drilled Joy Division impression it’s ultimately a little too forced to go beyond pure pastiche and grim sullenness drags down “There’s No Emotion” and “They Suffocate At Night” to just the wrong depth of self-pitying despondence.

The newly-appended second disc collects together non-album EPs released in the years between It and Freaks and two B-sides from the “Master Of The Universe” and “They Suffocate At Night” singles.  Even danker and gloomier than Freaks itself, it’s a muddier and sometimes gothic selection to wade through but nuggets do surface in the form of the Morrissey vs. Scott Walker experiment of “Little Girl (With Blue Eyes),” the self-deprecatingly doleful “Dogs Are Everywhere,” the eight minute Neu!-meets-The Fall motorik mania of “Tunnel” and the murky Serge Gainsbourg tribute of “Manon.”  Sadly, against the demands of completionist curiosity, Cocker’s previous ban on reissuing the hilariously saturnine “Silence” (a flipside from the “Master Of The Universe” 12″), has been upheld.

Pulp - Separations

Recorded in 1989 yet not released until 1992, Separations is where the Pulp beloved for Intro, His ‘N’ Hers and Different Class finally took shape.  Via the enrolment of sturdy yet flexible drummer Nick Banks and acid-house aficionado bassist Steve Mackey, the classic Pulp line-up solidified around Cocker’s much-increased vocal confidence and lyrical dexteritySplit into two distinct halves, Separations has a questing sonic ambition that marks it out as an archetypal transitional LP.  Thus, the first five songs flow through with glam-like stomping (“Love Is Blind”), synth and string framed fraught lust (“Don’t You Want Me Anymore?”), wider-screen balladry (“She’s Dead” and the title-track) and mordant Francophile exotica (“Down By The River”); in the process taking the stronger elements of Freaks into more self-defined and inviting directions.

The latter-half of Separations is devoted to finding a fusion of seminal late-‘70s disco meets and late-‘80s acid-house, pre-empting the electronic pulse that gave life to the terrific trilogy of Pulp EPs collected on 1992’s indispensable Intro compilation.  Hence, taken together, the throbbing squelches of “Countdown,” the sprightly erotica of “My Legendary Girlfriend,” the defiant strutting of “Death II” and the mechanical Senior-voiced “This House Is Condemned” glide along with genre-melding that has aged astonishingly well.  Four bonus tracks effectively extend the second section of Separations into deeper yet somewhat more unwieldy ends, with an expanded eight minute version of “Countdown” being the real gem.

Collectively, these three Pulp reissues do a more than admirable job of retelling a story that we should have known better already.  Nevertheless, those yet to discover these wilderness years releases can now find them presented in their best ever warts ‘n’ all configurations.

Fire Records