Pulp - Different Class

HE'S A dirty old bastard, that Jarvis Cocker. You'd better lock up your underwear when he's around and check the wardrobe for unwanted visitors. Sniff the continental quilt for those tell-tale deposits and make sure the bedroom curtains are closed so tight that nothing can be seen from the outside. Then, when everything seems secure, maybe you should wonder about the loyalty of those you love, or at least those you think you love. You see, nobody's really safe.

"I spy for a living and I specialise in revenge" - that's Jarvis Cocker's catchphrase now. And this is his masterplan: how to get his own back on all those moustachioed ape-brains who made the first - ooh - ten... 20... call it 30 years of his life a frustrated misery. It's easy. Write an anthem of solidarity for all the geeks, freaks and unwitting outsiders, a call-to-arms for life's terminally wilting wallflowers. Make it a massive hit, and win a fame and attendant sexual attractiveness that those beergutted morons haven't the imagination to even dream of. Write some more songs, brutally satirising the same's complacent little lives and aspirations. And then, apparently, f--- their wives. Revenge, you might well say, is sweet. This, then, is 'Different Class'; funny, phenomenally nasty, genuinely subversive and, of course, hugely, flamingly POP! If 'Different Class' was a movie, it would be Run For Your Wife directed by Alfred Hitchcock. If 'Different Class' was a book, it would be Billy Liar - The True Story. And if 'Different Class' has a precedent, it is 'Dog Man Star' with a bloodied nose, a dirty laugh and a genuine grudge to settle... Pretty good, really.

Put another way: remember that "sordid underbelly of American small-town life" everyone used to talk about when Twin Peaks was all the rage? This is Jarvis Cocker and Pulp luxuriating in the British equivalent. Take 'I Spy', a remarkably sustained drama that - if you substitute a malicious whisper for the heroic croon - comes on like a disco Scott Walker (crassly - 'The Old Man's Back Again' on a bad E).

At first, it appears to be a memoir of the tense and skint years, plotting and honing some kind of spangly pop masterplan to perfection; Pulp, as so many glowing features have told us, have been wannabe stars in the indie chart relegation zone since round about the Battle Of Balaclava. But then it all swings open and reveals itself to be much less glib, much more insidious and vindictive and so, so precise. "I've been sleeping with your wife for the past 16 weeks," Cocker gloats, Smoking your cigarettes/Drinking your brandy/Messing up the bed that you chose together". Simple revenge on some Year in Provence-toting prick isn't enough. When you've been wronged as deeply and consistently as Cocker, only a connoisseur's savouring of the invasion of someone else's privacy - a euphoria of humiliations - will do.

Obviously, there are much more unpleasant depths to the songs on 'Different Class' than the mere audacity of mentioning drugs in a title. Indeed, the attitude to narcotics throughout is curiously moralistic: from the monumental come-downs of 'Sorted For E's and Wizz'; via the vacuous club-bunnies who populate 'Monday Morning' (Pulp do ska! And get away with it, more or less); through to the "broken people" clustering in 'Bar Italia' at dawn, when, "You can't go to bed because it hasn't worn off yet."

No. Cocker's sins against the tabloid-trusting masses are much more pernicious than calculated drug scares. The roles he takes for much of 'Different Class' exploit the fears of the generations-that-never-inhaled in a far more real and frightening way. He is the voyeur who dreams of being caught, the swinger who's "kissed your mother twice and now I'm working on your dad," and, worst of all, the adulterer.

So on 'Pencil Skirt' - the albums sketchiest, least convincing moment - he's the illicit lover desperately aroused when he's told he must stop. In 'I Spy', he's the avenging f---er who wants his mistress' husband to catch them at it. And in the perversely lovely 'Underwear', he's the other man coming over all existential as they're about to be discovered in flagrante delicto. Bedroom farces are rarely as funny (actually because they're rarely even funny) or as black as these.

As ever, though - and you can check 1992's still-ace 'Babies' for a good precedent - Pulp smuggle in all this filth, this plethora of single entendres and soiled specifics, under cover of seamless, artful and almost unfailingly memorable tunes.

Here, the old accusations of gratuitous kitschery, of reheated new romanticism, seem wider of the mark than ever. 'Different Class' is a deft, atmospheric, occasionally stealthy and frequently booming, confident record. With their sheer bombast - 'Common People' and 'Mis-Shapes' are more brazen in their self-belief than practically any other records of '95 - and defiant, curdled camp, you could almost cast Pulp as a post-modern Queen... If the original Queen weren't a hideous seething mass of hypocrisy, fret-wanking and less-than-fantastic tunes, that is. But there you go.

Predictably, though, there are unfashionable influences. The cranking guitar line at the start of 'Disco 2000' , for instance, may initially appear to have Rolling Stones-style sleaziness, but it soon reveals itself instead to be a dead ringer for the riff from Laura Branigan's '80s Eurostomper, 'Gloria'.

Never mind, 'Disco 2000 bowls along with a preening flamboyance that distils the Pulp musical formula brilliantly: pose-friendly staccato verses, a big build-up and a skyscraper-size chorus scientifically designed for the tossing of hair, the flailing of limbs and the rhythmical pounding on the numbskulls of the Wet Wet Wet-fancying enemy faction. Marvellous stuff.

It also, following the unmitigated spite of 'I Spy', begins a more humane group of songs that fill out the middle of 'Different Class'. So 'Disco 2000' - if there is any logic and justice, their first Number One - is more charitable to those who have what La Cocker perceives as a mundane life, mulling over the radically different paths of a childhood sweetheart (married with a kid) and himself ("Living down here on my own," the poor lamb). For a brief moment, he appears a tiny bit envious. Honest, even.

Next, 'Live Bed Show' changes the rules again, by anatomising a failed relationship through bed action and the subsequent lack of it; no more "headboard banging in the night," at this address. Instead of the customary sneering at the 'His'n'Hers couple culture, there appears to be genuine pathos, a suspicion inevitably helped by the fact that the tune carries itself with a glorious, lachrymose shimmer worthy of John Barry.

Two tracks even, saints preserve us, describe falling in love simply and, it seems, without recourse to sarcasm. First, 'Something Changed', a swish and vaguely jangly trinket about, bizarrely, love at first sight. Then, much better, 'Feeling Called Love', a breathy meditation on the fear and squalor and pure physical lust of basic attraction, made all the more affecting by having a creepy, freaked tune that recalls Bowie's austerely fashionable Berlin trilogy.

The itchy, frank realism of 'Feeling Called Love', in fact, brings home another truth about Pulp: for all their protestations, this is anything but disposable music. They can trivialise pop all they want, turn it into a shiny commodity, separate it from what they see as the bogus primal screams of rock - feel free. But they can't deny the emotional impact, the craft and, yes, passion that's so obviously been put into 'Different Class' - enough to make it their best album by a comfortable distance.

For sure, Jarvis Cocker may be summoning up all his theatrical guile to play the stunned and shivering lover - or, for that matter, the vicious and destructive one - but he does it with a terrific, and frankly terrifying, resonance. He might not look much use in a fight, but you'd still want him on your side - think of the cruel vendettas he'd meticulously carry out for years to come, for starters.

A good comrade, then. A role model for the shy, nervous and awkward? In all probability. A bloody good singer in a bloody good band? Without a doubt. All this true and good. Just don't, whatever you do, let the bastard into your home, up your staircase, across your landing, into your bedroom... anywhere near your partner... You have been warned.


John Mulvey