Listen to this track by Sheffieldian Britpop figureheads Pulp. It’s “Do You Remember The First Time”, a single as taken from their 1994 record His ‘N’ Hers. This record helped to establish the band’s propensity for strong narratives marked by a dramatic slice-of-life songwriting style.
The band began in the late ’70s when lead singer and founder Jarvis Cocker was 15. But, it was only in the 1990s that they would make their mark in the mainstream, helping to define the Britpop era in terms of subject matter, tone, and overall presentation. It would be this album that would serve as their invitation into the premiership of the UK charts, with that aforementioned flair for drama within a four minute pop song .
This particular song tells the story of two lovers, and another one waiting at home. On the surface, this story appears to be about sexual jealousy. But underneath that, it’s also a song about memory, maturity, and and how love itself can be very messy.
Perhaps the two lovers setting the scene in this song are now friends, at the end of a night together. At home awaits the husband of one of these lovers, a person who is stable and successful. But, he is otherwise unsuitable, offering no passion, and no real connection. To complicate things further, the narrator of this song isn’t suitable either. He represents a time when maturity and responsibility weren’t on the radar, and perhaps still isn’t. So, which lover will be chosen? Will the night end with a return home as usual, or will tension of the love triangle be cause for something transformative to happen? That question is the axis on which this drama rotates.
This is a love song that is about how far away love, or the promise of it, can take you from where you want to be. It’s certainly a song that is easy to identify with, typifying a stark realism in a pop song instead of a typical fantasy. Where I think fantasy is fair game when it comes to writing love songs, I think a song like this helps to fill out love’s profile when it comes to framing it in popular song. It reminds us that love can be complicated, ambiguous, and elusive. It can lead us to dark places.
Pulp would build their reputation on songs that tell stories like these, all with a palette comprised of shades of grey. Their follow-up, 1995’s A Different Class, would prove them to be among the best in their, um, class. Anthemic tales of growing up and having to face one’s true identity, the responsibilities of adulthood, and eventual old age would be common themes found in their output, usually filtered through unreliable narrators. The band would be proven as writers who were able to reflect the true-to-life experiences of listeners, rather than your standard creators of love ballads where there are clear winners and losers.
Pulp went on extended hiatus after their last album We Love Life was released in 2001. But, they would reunite in 2011 to hit the festival circuit in Britain, later to release their first single in 11 years with 2013’s “After You”.
To learn more about Pulp, check out this comprehensive wiki about Pulp.