PULP We Love Life (Island)

Admittedly more interesting to me for being produced by the legendary Scott Walker rather than for being the new Pulp album, "We Love Life", for all its back-to-nature imagery, doesn't seem too far removed from the claustrophobic, clammy atmosphere of 1998's "This Is Hardcore". I don't know what I should have expected Walker and his regular gang of helpers (including engineer Peter Walsh and string arranger Brian Gascoigne, son of Bamber) to bring to Pulp's music. Certainly, it hasn't mutated into the twisted, gothic, anthracite architecture of the last Scott Walker album, "Tilt", but perhaps the elaborate string and choir arrangements that grace the 'bigger' songs here carry evidence of his hand.

If "We Love Life" is a little low octane in terms of musical thrills - not bad, necessarily, just reserved where something a little more epic might not be unreasonably expected - lyrically it contains some of Jarvis Cocker's finest work yet. "Wickerman" is a love song disguised as a package tour of Sheffield's underground waterways, harkening back to the rambling stories-as-songs contained on "Intro: The Gift Recordings" (still their finest, most honest hour in my opinion). "Bad Cover Version" is a masterpiece, whether referencing the nudge-wink "Top Of The Pops" unoriginal artists compilation series - "A bad cover version of love is not the real thing/Bikini-clad girl on the front who invited you in" or goading their new taskmaster with a reference to his back catalogue: "Sing your song about all the sad imitations that got it so wrong…like the Stones since the eighties…the second side of "Til the Band Comes In"." (All 11 songs are illustrated with a picture on the inner sleeve: "Bad Cover Version" carries a teenage photograph of guitarist Nick Webber doing a Ziggy outside the K. West building in London - genius!) Elsewhere the songs seem to concentrate on people and lives caught on the precipice between up and down, just about to make the decisive step in one direction or another.

Although it sounds more underplayed than Scott Walker's reputation might lead you to expect, "We Love Life" is a perfectly competent album that dovetails neatly with the material Pulp have been spinning in recent years; it's no showstopper, but a quietly cautious and considered exploration of the aftermath of growing up in public.

PULP Sunrise/The Trees (Island)

No more and no less than the first single from Pulp's recent Scott Walker-produced album "We Love Life", picked up for me by a friend who found the CD in an Asda cheapy bin for the barely credible price of one new pence. (Sensibly, he left the Victoria Beckham and Bob The Builder singles where they were.) Apart from the lead tracks, the first of which ("Sunrise") somehow seems just that little bit more persuasive when isolated from the rest of the album, there's also a Fat Truckers remix of "Sunrise", which dumps everything apart from Jarvis' vocal performance, which gets welded to a harsh, rubber-studded electro backing.

PULP Different Class (Island)

I never really appreciated “Different Class” on its release in 1995, when I was generally too busy bemoaning the continued slide in the quality of Pulp’s output since the brilliance of “Intro – The Gift Recordings”. Nevertheless, listening to it over a decade later, it’s almost shocking how vicious and slashingly splenetic Jarvis sounds at times – the climaxes of “Common People” and “Monday Morning” especially. He means it, man, in ways that make Johnny Rotten look like a puppet dilettante.

Perhaps the key to the album is revealed in “Mis-shapes”, where Jarvis’ bow-legged awkwardness is given a widescreen, Technicolor makeover, the sound of the silent underdog majority seizing the big guns. Certainly, “Different Class” builds massively on the achievements of previous album “His ‘N’ Hers”, and although around half of its songs could’ve disappeared comfortably amidst the latter’s acrylic afternoons – “Pencil Skirt”, “I Spy”, “Live Bed Show”, “Underwear”, all the sex songs, basically! – it’s arguably the new journalism of “Common People” and “Sorted For E’s & Wizz” that really helped the album become ubiquitous and pass into Britpop folklore.

On “I Spy” you can almost hear Cocker toying with his public persona, maybe even relishing the fact that he’s beginning to establish a tabloid identity. (I mean, who else do you think of when you hear the name Jarvis?) With self-mythologizing lines like “Imagining a blue plaque above the place where I first ever touched a girl’s chest” it seems almost like these songs fortuitously arrived at exactly the right moment in Pulp’s long uphill slog of a career curve.

Fitting neither of the aforementioned templates, “Disco 2000” was an instant singalong nostalgia hit, and is no less poignant heard from the other side of its titular dateline. Of all the album’s dozen songs, “Something Changed” might stake the greatest claim to immortality; universally resonant, it transcends time, place and the band’s kitsch, corduroy-lined mindset.

This original vinyl pressing is a slight disappointment: with upwards of 25 minutes of music crammed on each side the sound quality inevitably suffers, blunting the edge of Cocker’s rage at times. Nevertheless, there’s the compensatory bonus of an elaborate sleeve design: a cut-out in the front of the cover allows the listener’s preferred album art to be selected from a dozen supplied pictures, the kind of artwork interactivity that cost the last Beck album its chart placing.

PULP The Peel Sessions (Island)

Having never been a huge fan of Mr Cocker’s crew, this two disc assemblage of all their Peel sessions could potentially have been a gruelling experience, yet it’s actually a delight.

The 1981 session, performed by a teenage band and long suppressed by Jarvis, should by rights be dreadful, but these four tracks have a kind of na´ve frivolity to them, a gaucheness that’s worn the years lighter than the po-faced new romance that others were peddling at the time. “Turkey Mambo Momma” is a lot better than any song with such a title deserves to be; “Wishful Thinking” suggests a new, improved Comsat Angels frolicking amidst rose petals. The jagged, discordant goth and Dalek vocal distortions of “Refuse To Be Blind” aren’t very pleasant, but, as someone else didn’t quite sing, three out of four ain’t bad.

Having successfully negotiated that initial ordeal, the remainder of these two discs settle into comfortably familiar territory. A 1993 session speeds efficiently through selections from “His ‘N’ Hers” over a year ahead of its release, adding the delicious, if hardly atypical, suburban ennui of “You’re A Nightmare”. Still ahead of themselves, a 1994 session offers three songs from “Different Class” twelve months before their album appearance. There are no alarms and no surprises here: the songs appear to be pretty similar to the finished versions, which isn’t to deny the contemporaneous pleasure these renditions must’ve brought when first aired by Mr Peel. A 2001 session debuts songs from “We Love Life” mere months before its release, also adding the charming, and otherwise unavailable, childhood narrative “Duck Diving”, which harkens back to the band’s overlooked Gift recordings.

A second disc collates selections from three concert recordings. During a 2001 celebration of Mr Peel’s four decades and counting of broadcasting, Jarvis dedicates “Help The Aged” to the phonograph equestrian. Performed five years on (and listened to five years after that) “Sorted For E’s And Wizz” already sounds like a period piece from a bygone, CJB-strangled age. There’s a fat and fuzzy cover of Henry Mancini’s “Theme From Peter Gunn”, and a slow-motion “This Is Hardcore” is appropriately sleazy, rank with dehumanising desperation. Jarvis’ exhortation to “enjoy life as much as possible, while it’s still here” has acquired a tragic patina given subsequent events, and there’s the briefest sliver of the voice of the man himself over the fadeout of “Sunrise”. From a 1995 Bristol Anson Rooms show (which, if the documentation included in the booklet is to be believed, lasted considerably longer than the three songs presented here) their “Trainspotting” soundtrack contribution “Mile End” stakes a valid claim to the canon, and “Babies” is performed with bouncy, knockabout, singalong exuberance. Finally, from a 2001 Birmingham Academy gig, “Party Hard” is almost metal in its blistering attack, and “Common People” begins, at least, sounding deliberately rough and motorik, like a Kraftwerk demo addled by cheap preset rhythms and tinny synth sounds.

Much of “The Peel Session” might seem like familiar songs being competently performed, the same old business as usual, but it works, and well. As a Pulp primer that won’t be outgrown once you’ve acquired the rest of their discography, it has far more value than initial inspection might suggest.