Pulp - Freaks (Reissue)
released 13 February 2012 on Fire Records
In the life and career of Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, one section that tends to get glossed over is his stint as one half of gothic electro duo Relaxed Muscle. Relaxed Muscle released one album in 2003, A Heavy Night With…, and promptly disappeared from view. However, this dark, brooding menace must have been part of the Cocker armoury for some time, as it’s one of the overriding emotions on 1987’s Freaks. Freaks is subtitled ‘Ten Stories About Power, Claustrophobia, Suffocation and Holding Hands’, and it’s a very apt description. As well as the nightmarish, hall-of-mirrors theme – one which doesn’t seem to crop up on any other Pulp album – there’s the bedsit balladry and tales of intense (and mainly unrequited) relationships that became Pulp’s calling card on future records.
Freaks begins with Fairground, which features chromatic scales, a wurlitzer, maniacal cackling, references to circus freaks, and generally sounds like the music played in a big top at the apocalypse. Russell Senior takes lead vocal duties, and his sinister narration lends an even more spooky theme (“nature sometimes makes a mistake”). Being Followed Home begins with ominous echoing footsteps and also makes use of descending, funfair-style chords, while Master Of The Universe is full of jeopardy and creeping dread - and touches upon BDSM (“a master masturbates alone in the corner of your home”).
Unfortunately, Freaks charts a transitional period in the history of Pulp and doesn’t fit together well as an album at all. It’s a battle between two sides of Pulp. The above paragraph covers the 'power, claustrophobia and suffocation', but the album’s stronger tracks are the 'holding hands' side, giving the first real indication of what the band were capable of. Life Must Be So Wonderful is more like the Pulp we know and love. It’s vintage Jarvis – a third person outsider ballad about a council estate femme fatale. Despite the cheap sound of the percussion and not being sung by Cocker, Anorexic Beauty follows this template too, though it also contains a little of the macabre; the object of our hero’s affections, rather than traditionally beautiful, is “corpse-like” and “erotic and skull-faced”.
For those wishing for Pulp at their best though, Freaks provides in the form of I Want You. Following the largely character-free It, you can practically hear Jarvis becoming a frontman as I Want You progresses. His wistful persona sounds fully-formed and honed, and he zones in on lust, longing and obsessions expertly. I Want You is the only track from this era performed regularly by Pulp, and it’s not difficult to ascertain why. Freaks is an album of contrasts, differences and growth. It’s to everyone’s benefit that they ditched the Hell’s Carnival theme and focused more on what they were good at as the band and their sound developed. Freaks will likely be enjoyed by dedicated Pulp disciples only, but there’s the odd snatch of what they were about to become buried amongst the rubble.