In the mid-1990s Pulp were the toast of the British pop world on the strength of hits like "Common People" and "Disco 2000." They were in the big leagues, with leader Jarvis Cocker appearing on award shows alongside the likes of Michael Jackson (who he famously mooned on one occasion) overnight sensations who took a decade to arrive. Then came the "difficult" follow-up album, This Is Hardcore, which found Cocker exorcising the demons of his newfound popularity to a less-than-enchanted public and mixed reviews. Popularity waning, and with little to lose in our fickle age, Pulp seem on their latest release to be leaving their usual (sub)urban world to attempt a commune with nature, like a world-weary soul retreating to the garden.
This theory is suggested by the packaging, beginning with the We Love Life cover: the band's name spelled out in green capital letters, embellished with leaves and fruits and flowers, against a white background. A glance at the song titles reveals mentions of weeds, trees, birds, gardens, sunrise.... But then, there's also one about roadkill, and another about a girl named Minnie who dies. Perhaps there's something else, something deeper and darker and meaningful, going on here.
So then, into the music. The opener, "Weeds," a droning number with a martial drumbeat: "We are weeds, vegetation/ Dense undergrowth. Through cracks in the pavement/ There weeds will grow/ In places you don't go." What's this all about, then? Overpopulation, mankind sprouting up everywhere from the harshest, iciest climes to the most barren of deserts? Maybe the answer is coming in the next track, "Weeds II (the origin of the species)." This murky, synthesizer-heavy sounding song finds Cocker giving a monologue, continuing his exploration of this humans-as-weeds theme; then the song's bridge hits and he goes off in a new, seemingly cannabis-inspired direction.
"The Night That Minnie Timperley Died" one of the album's highlights brilliantly juxtaposes bright, poppy music with a dark tale about the title character's demise at the hands of a murderous stranger. Musically, it's one of the best things Pulp have ever done, with a chugging guitar part on the verses and some beautiful, chiming fretwork on the chorus. "The Trees" showcases producer (and cult legend) Scott Walker's skills with string arrangements as it returns to the nature theme. The album's centerpiece, "Wickerman," is an eight-minute near-epic about a dank river flowing beneath a city and the possibilities it holds for those willing to follow it past the outskirts and into the wilderness possibilities our narrator has yet to explore, even as he dreams of floating away on it with his lover.
Much of the rest of We Love Life hearkens back to more typical Pulp material. For example, the title track's concluding thought "You've got to fight to the death for the right to live your life" could be an outtake from the Different Class album. There's love and lust aplenty throughout We Love Life, including first sex ("The Birds in Your Garden"), love lost to another ("Bad Cover Version"), and the inevitable falling in love again ("Bob Lind").
The album concludes with an absolute stunner: "Sunrise." Two and a half minutes of sad, gentle crooning about the sun's appearance signaling the end of another night, slowly building up into an absolute rave-up of wailing electric guitar leads and an angelic choir. Overwhelming, false ending and all.
Ultimately, We Love Life is a concept album that loses the plot, but sneaks up and surprises you every time you hear it. The instant pop buzz Pulp have concocted in the past is largely missing, but each listen reveals another layer, another level, another reason to love it. Highly recommended.