The last time bookish Britpop legends Pulp played a concert in the United States, I was just wrapping up my sophomore year in high school. The idea of making the trip into New York City to see a band was well out of the realm of possibility (at the time, I had to argue with my parents about seeing shows one town over), but for a hot minute I tried to devise some way I could see them. After all, their just-released sixth album This Is Hardcore was my absolute favorite album at the time (even though all the middle-aged suburban ennui went completely over my head), and the band was not doing the sort of full-scale tour that would have taken them to the local amphitheater in Hartford. So I had to put that idea to bed. “I’ll catch them next time,” I told myself.
How was I to know that it would take them nearly 14 years to come back? They put out one more tepidly-received album and promptly broke up. Frontman Jarvis Cocker moved to Paris, started a solo career, and seemed content to let his old band live in the past forever. The solo stuff was pretty strong, and I got to experience Cocker live in person twice in the interim, but there was still a distinct lack of “Disco 2000″ in my live concert history.
The band rewarded my patience with two phenomenally sharp shows at New York’s Radio City Music Hall this week, and during Tuesday night’s sinewy rendition of “This Is Hardcore,” I realized exactly why I love Cocker’s style as a frontman. He’s a deeply physical performer who has carved out a unique dance style. His voice isn’t the most technically proficient, but his songs would sound ridiculous if sung by anybody else. The choruses are as much about his vocal tics and asides as they are about the hooks themselves. His bands songs are deeply rooted in their conception period and yet strangely timeless. And he is so deeply ensconced in his character that it’s sometimes hard to tell where the irony begins.
With that resumé, it’s clear why I find Cocker so compelling: He’s almost exactly like David Lee Roth. Of course, Roth has never recited lines from great works of literature before ripping into “Unchained.” Cocker did that both nights, celebrating the anniversary of the publication of The Great Gatsby on Tuesday night and paying tribute to the passing of Kurt Vonnegut on Wednesday. It sounds pretentious, but it worked, as many of Pulp’s songs share the same sort of detached sadness and brittle irony that overcomes Nick Carraway.
That’s not to say the shows were a dirge. On the contrary, Cocker long ago mastered the ability to marry his twisty tales of working-class woe to bubbly, danceable pop grooves. The narrative of “Do You Remember The First Time?” is super depressing, but it opened both shows with triumphant, anthemic swirls of keyboard gloss and guitar wiggles. “Disco 2000″ ends in middle-aged heartbreak but kept the diehards twirling through it’s bouncy backbeat, and everybody put their hands up when the lyrics to “Mis-Shapes” called for it, even though it seemed a little silly.
Though he’s clearly compelled by the British caste system and the struggle between the classes, Cocker is at his strongest when dealing in sexual politics. The most powerful moments of the two evenings were also the most personal: Cocker’s introduction to “Underwear,” where he laid out an extremely specific personal scenario about regret; the panic that underscores “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.”; the adolescent angst running through “Babies”; and of course the kinky collapses during “This Is Hardcore.”
On both nights, the main set ended with “Common People,” perhaps Pulp’s best-known song and a sad, hilarious, occasionally enraging anthem about a rich girl who “thinks that poor is cool.” It’s a problematic song for Cocker to be singing in 2012, as he long ago left his working class roots behind, and it’s even more problematic for the crowd of diehards—most of which were more like the girl in the song than the guy—to sing along to. But like Roth, Cocker fully inhabits every one of his songs, allowing for just enough suspension of disbelief to feel good about shouting along. That’s another thing Roth and Cocker have in common: They are both hucksters, and the sweetness of their wares—whether it’s “Hot for Teacher” or “Sorted for E’s & Wizz”—is too intense to pass up.