Album Analysis | Pulp - Different Class
Encapsulating the sound and attitude of 1990s Britain, Pulp's most iconic album remains the high watermark of the Britpop movement.
I must confess to a degree of bias in the way I view Pulp’s fifth album Different Class. Released in October 1995, only a few months after my birth, one of my earliest memories of music is hearing 'Common People' on my parents’ living room stereo. Although many fondly and vividly remembered musical moments amount to nothing more than pure nostalgia, and disappoint when revisited in later life, Different Class has remained relevant through the years, and appears as the soundtrack to multiple snapshots of my life. The sound of 'Disco 2000' drifting across a hazy field in Leeds and pulling me towards it like a magnetic force, the breezy strings of 'Something Changed' scoring me cooking pasta with a new partner in a dirty student kitchen, 'Common People' once again spurring me to the dancefloor a few months ago on a drunken night in Sheffield’s Leadmill nightclub, where the band played their first gig.
Pulp had been active in various forms since 1978, but it wasn’t until their fourth full-length album, 1994’s His ‘n’ Hers, that they received mainstream popularity and attention, on the strength of stellar singles such as 'Babies' and 'Do You Remember The First Time?' At this point the band were becoming known for combining new wave, disco and glam rock with hooks catchy and anthemic enough to place them as a key component of the media’s emerging “Britpop” movement. Setting them apart from their peers was the distinct style and lyrical wit of founder and frontman Jarvis Cocker, juxtaposing the music’s gloss and spectacle with stories of working-class, kitchen-sink British realism.
This style was further honed on Different Class, but this time the hooks were bigger and the sound even further refined. Cocker supposedly wrote eight of the album’s songs in the space of two days- an impressive feat if true, especially with how finely crafted each track is. The album kicks off with 'Mis-Shapes', a mission statement for the revolution of the misfits shunned by society and threatened with “a smack in the mouth” for daring to be different. Cocker, proud oddball-in-chief, declares “we’re making a move, we’re making it now, we’re coming out of the sidelines”. It’s a bold opener, but it’s hard not to be convinced by it.
The songs on Different Class are concerned as much with tales of vice, sleaze, and hedonism as they are with alienation and the daily grind of working-class Britain. Whether these vices are chemical ('Sorted for E’s and Wizz'), or more commonly, sexual, they are woven into the loose narrative of the album to paint a picture of broke, directionless misfits escaping their bleak surroundings via cheap sensory thrills. Not quite as dark and nihilistic as Trainspotting, that other piece of iconic mid-90s British pop culture, but not a million miles off. Smash-hit 'Common People' laments the abandonment of an entire class left to “dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do” over an incessant mechanical beat and guitars like pneumatic drills. This might seem like a bummer if the melody wasn’t so infectious and the vocals so soaring and impassioned- ultimately 'Common People' sounds as much Abba as Neu!
Cocker narrates ordinary people’s lives with a fascination bordering on voyeurism (or in the case of 'I Spy', explicitly referencing it). 'Underwear' tells a story of painful sexual jealousy made famous a decade later by 'Mr Brightside', and evokes all the desperate yearning and powerlessness of The Killers’ iconic single. 'Live Bed Show' explores with unexpected pathos the sexual frustration of a lonely woman, while 'Pencil Skirt' is a tale of infidelity that crosses the line from humour to something more sinister- “I really love it when you tell me to stop” is perhaps the only lyric of the album that seems dated in the modern era, even if the narrator is a seedy caricature.
Aside from this, the lyricism on the album is pin-sharp, full of humour, relatability, and suburban and domestic imagery. Lines such as “if fashion is your trade, then when you’re naked I guess you must be unemployed” show Cocker’s wit and wordplay, and images of “skilfully avoiding the dog turd outside the corner shop” reflect the proudly unglamourous lives of his characters. Although the album is full of similar snappy one-liners, there is no shortage of genuine emotion. The driving guitar riffs of single “Disco 2000” are accompanied by a story of reminiscing on the past and anticipating the future- the anthemic chorus a perfect slice of heart-on-sleeve romantic longing: “I never knew that you’d get married, I would be living down here on my own, on that damp and lonely Thursday years ago”. The closest thing that comes to sentimental on the album is the ballad “Something Changed”, where the narrator ponders the life-changing significance of a chance encounter: “I wrote this song two hours before we met, I didn’t know your name or what you looked like yet”.
“I Spy” is a mini-epic that starts with a menacing crawl reminiscent of a Scott Walker album, and the kind of tremolo-picked acoustic guitar you would expect to hear on an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, before exploding into dark disco and a tale of northern noir. A fantasy of getting “revenge” on a rich man by seducing his wife mixes the album's themes of class conflict and sexual obsession- it’s unclear whether the sexual or political aspect is of more interest to the narrator! It’s rare to hear a pop song as much inspired by Marx as Moroder. The band are clearly well-read (Cocker, much like David Byrne before him, looks like a gawky bookworm with supreme confidence and unexpectedly flamboyant dance moves) and unashamed to display it. In contrast to the tabloid-presented dichotomy of the simple, straightforward northern working-class lads (Oasis) and the educated and pretentious southern art school kids (Blur), Pulp represented an ignored class (a “different class” if you will) of young working-class northerners who were well-read and artsy through interest and intellect rather than privilege- the ones who “learnt too much at school” and refused to fit into the established societal mould.
The album’s now-iconic front cover (at least, the default one- the vinyl edition of the album included a dozen alternative images that could be chosen at the listener’s discretion) by photographer Donald Milne depicts a wedding photograph with black-and-white cutouts of the band interspersed among the small crowd- reflecting the band’s image as outsiders within society.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Different Class is the way that the songs lend a sense of the epic to the everyday stories of ordinary people. The six band members – Jarvis Cocker, bassist Steve Mackey, drummer Nick Banks, keyboard player Candida Doyle, and guitarists Russell Senior and Mark Webber- work together flawlessly as a unit, no instrument stealing the spotlight, but contributing to the cinematic, maximalist textures (explored even further on the dark comedown of 1998's follow-up LP This is Hardcore). The scuzzy guitar tones of tracks like “Monday Morning” display the band’s post-punk roots, yet the rhythms are frequently inspired by disco and dance music, perhaps a nod to the late ‘80s rave scene described in 'Sorted for E’s and Wizz'. The whole album is polished with glossy production from Chris Thomas that somehow doesn’t neuter its rockier edges. This combination of sounds, in addition to the lyrical themes, make Different Class an album that encapsulates Britain in the ‘90s- yet simultaneously manages to sound timeless.
Listen to Different Class on Spotify here.