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Resentment in Retrospective: Pulp's 'His 'n' Hers', 20 Years On

11/06/2014 12:04 BST | Updated 03/08/2014 10:59 BST

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You're not his mother,

And you're not sister & brother -

He's not even your lover.

He's just a piece of luggage you should throw away. 'Have You Seen Her Lately', 1994

N.B. - To borrow the request given by every Pulp album to date, PLEASE DO NOT READ THE WORDS WHILST LISTENING TO THE RECORDINGS.

If life tends to present us with the album we need, and not the album we deserve, then His 'n' Hers might have salvaged my teenage years, in more ways than one. Bitter and acerbic, blessed with the kind of cynicism and viciousness that dictated my college years but presented in Jarvis Cocker's uniquely perceptive wit, it appealed to a maudlin and lonely girl on a very primal level. Here was proof that the outsiders, those who arm themselves with cleverness and disdain rather than beauty or popularity could succeed, could be lauded for their uneasy charisma rather than condemned as a freak, an outsider. I bought the charity-shop jacket but more importantly bought into the idea that maybe, just maybe, a girl who had to ask why society was crushing her could thrive in spite of it. If we can accept that not being able to identify with those around you - if their lipgloss-and-boyfriend based aspirational lifestyle inspired nausea rather than satisfaction - can legitimately be seen to result in the need to feel better than other people in an attempt to feel alive, then His 'n' Hers can be seen as a call to arms, a manifesto to this survival technique. Its worldview might not be a happy one, might reject optimism and love for a quick grope under the table and a slow slide into a paralysing fear of society, but it feels true to the actual reality of living as part of a society which it scorns, but can never entirely reject.

Best song? Couldn't say, that would be cheating. Although I will admit, Pink Glove has a certain bite and drive that is irresistible, and who could resist that incendiary, bitchy, gleefully observant chorus?*

His 'n' Hers isn't a refined album; rather, its particular blend of resentment and paranoia, viewed through the intense lens of queasy sexuality and life on the margins of society, allows for an album which succeeds despite of, or maybe because of, its flaws. It doesn't provide a home for Pulp's most immediate, sing-a-long work (obviously Different Class!), nor does it have the thematic consistency of This is Hardcore, yet as a collection of songs it burns not with the brightness of a consciously artistic statement but with the seedy glow of a cigarette in an alleyway, and is all the more threatening for it. His 'n' Hers thrives on threat, on anxiety and bitterness and on attempts to reach out and touch someone under the covers or in the shadows of a nightclub well past its prime, only to have your fingers burnt and your pessimistic worldview reinforced. It's seedy, sleazy, heart-breaking and triumphant in equal measure, a celebration of life in the margins as much as it is an indictment of society in general. As an album, it represents the turning point of Pulp from a group who hadn't really hit their stride, either lyrically or musically**, to the Glastonbury-headlining Britpop titans they were fated to become. It's rough-hewn, flailing wildly between genre-aesthetics and topic matter with a lanky, stumbling grace, yet these imperfections have the paradoxical effect of making the album seem more suited to both its misfit audience and its subject matter.

The songs themselves seem to share this approach: when I saw Pulp at the Brixton Academy (which, incidentally, provided the opportunity for my last ever bit of sneaky underage drinking. Seems appropriate.) Cocker admitted that they couldn't really play the careening, sickly, oddly looping riff of Lipgloss with any proficiency live. All the songs on His 'n' Hers are a bit like that - more concerned with ideas than technical proficiency, wildly careening from disjointed synth line to fractured guitar piece, held together by their compelling lyrical content but not something that would ever provide inspiration for someone aspiring to be the next guitar hero. And, do you know what? None of this matters in the slightest. Pulp are a group with a devoted fan-base precisely because their technical inability, their simplistic and often piecemeal approach to creating a song that's greater than the sum of its parts, allows them to be the underdogs and thus act as a figurehead for the lonely and the dissatisfied. Sod it if Candida's keyboard playing sounds a bit haphazard at times - it's endearing, accessible, appropriate for music concerned with notions of superficiality and smut.

After all, smuttiness is what Pulp are renowned for, though their approach to sexuality seems wilfully obtuse, focusing more on tension and awkwardness than fulfilment. The flippant manipulation of conventional social mores through the title His 'n' Hers places sexual politics and conventional notions of gender at the forefront, its insincerity masking what could be considered a very genuine and relatable exploration of sexual relations and their dominance over social interaction. Who could fail to smile knowingly to themselves at the adolescent awkwardness of Babies' 'I wanna take you home, I wanna give you children. you might be my girlfriend', or the relatable malevolence of Razzmatazz. It's nasty, and cruel, but as a piece of situational narrative it's perfect - hasn't everyone enjoyed the schadenfreude of someone that they resent having a life that is rapidly going down the pan? The sheer, ironic anger of lines such as 'Oh well, I saw you at the doctor's waiting for a test, you're trying to look like some kind of heiress, but your face is such a mess, and now you're going to a party and leaving on your own - oh, I'm sorry, but didn't you say, "Things go better with a little bit of razzmatazz?"' is satisfying precisely because of its bitchiness, its vitriol.

Satisfaction, if it ever comes, is fleeting and dissociative. Take, for instance, the futile request to 'stay here lying under the table together with you... forever in acrylic afternoons?', presented in the inverted domestic tableau that is Acrylic Afternoons. Set against a stabbing synth line and with the kind of accelerated pace that mimics perfectly the deliberate unease of the lyrics, it exposes the world of artificial dalliances in council flats with more than a hint of the class-based anger that Pulp would later come to perfect with Common People.

Indeed, there is a notable element of social commentary, and to a certain extent a class consciousness, in His 'n' Hers; by recreating the Sheffield of the band's childhood and teenage years, the listener is immersed in the often grim reality of life as part of the working class of the time. The fact that the anger and resentment aimed towards the subjects of many of the songs on the album can be seen to coexist with empathy towards the impossibility of their situation - slipping a comforting arm around the limitations and degradations of their existence whilst acknowledging their own, personal failings - stands strength to the power of Pulp as a group. After all, Razzmatazz comes to a climax with its presentation of the subject 'at the doctor's waiting for a test.... trying to look like some kind of heiress' - it's nasty, it's sordid, but it's viciousness is undercut by a certain kind of sympathy towards its subject and the situation in which she finds herself trapped. By choosing to write songs as 'an attempt to find meaning in the mass-produced and throw-away that after all we were surrounded by on a daily basis' (Jarvis Cocker, August 2011), the band gave a voice to those who the establishment ignored, exploited, scapegoated. Later Pulp songs would bring this motivation to the fore, in more explicit detail (for instance, Last Day of the Miners' Strike), and this tendency seems to be shared across several bands in the broad Britpop movement: His 'n' Hers' contemporary, Suede's Dog Man Star, embodies this with the visceral request to 'give me the power, and I'll make them bleed... although I'm just the common breed.'

Pulp are also conscious of the power of comedy, and the vein of often fairly mean-spirited humour running through the album imbues it with a kind of quickness, a vivid energy that threatens to spill out from its lyrical confines and overwhelm the listener. I challenge anyone not to snort in recollection at the faltering sexual dynamics of Do You Remember the First Time?, and not to choke with laughter as they try to sing along with 'I don't care what you're doing, no I don't care if you screw him'. The glibness of the rhyme scheme renders 'the trouble with your brother? He's always sleeping with your mother' from Razzmatazz as funny as it is grotesque, and Joyriders likewise sets much of the tone for the album with its uneasy mix of acerbic observation and lurking seediness and decay. It calls out to 'you in the Jesus sandals' (and in doing so captures a uniquely British syntax and way of speaking) and presents the kind of people 'so thick we can't think - can't think of anything but shit sleep and drink'***, yet the literal violence and threat present in the song almost makes a listener feel guilty for laughing, almost as if their pleasure has been derived from the suffering of others. The implication of voyeurism present in 'wouldn't you like to come over and watch some vandals smashing up someone's home?' raises a legitimate question not just within the confines of the song, or even the album, but of the position of the listener themselves. For a group as reliant on observation and kitchen-sink-drama type scenes, Pulp allow the listener to peep between the 'net curtains blowing slightly in the breeze' at a series of scenes which appear as a distorted set of recollections from Cocker's early years - and this is vaguely uncomfortable. The listener is asked, through implication, how they feel about these people, these scenarios, and the culture both of the singer's worldview and of Northern life as a whole.

This might all be the misguided attempt of someone to justify why a collection of eleven songs has had more of an effect on her mind-set than nearly anything else, but it really is an incredible album. It's got everything from life to death, with all the sordid, squalid little details in between. Besides, 'you can mythologise anything if you put your mind to it. In a way, it's more fun to look for profundity in something that's not designed to have it', even if there definitely seems to be more substance to His 'n' Hers than any of its detractors would like to admit (Jarvis Cocker, 2011). So thank-you, Pulp, all of you, sincerely and from the bottom of my bitter, resentful little heart. You may have saved my life, or at the very least my sanity. I think I owe you all a pint.

* Pink Glove might be my favourite. Don't let on.

** Although Freaks does have its merits and Separations is pretty great, Death II in particular.

*** I may have borrowed this line to win an argument once.

All quotations taken from 'Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics', Jarvis Cocker (2011: Faber and Faber Ltd., London).

All song lyrics taken from 'His 'n' Hers', all tracks written by Pulp, all lyrics by Jarvis Cocker (1994: Island Records)

Collage courtesy of Emma Bowden: http://emmabowdenillustration.com/