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Coachella 2012: Pulp's tragically arresting romantic comedies

April 14, 2012 |  4:30 am

Pulp's Jarvis Cocker is a showman, a grand entertainer. He started his set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival with a simple "good evening," and then walked from the end of stage left to the tip of stage right. Though he never looked anything less than dapper throughout the set, sporting a suit coat and a red tie, he would numerous times lose his composure, regain it and and play it for drama, twisting and contorting himself like a silent film star.

His tales, as he sang, are "the sound of someone losing the plot, making out that they're OK when they're not." Now on the reunion circuit, Pulp's class-conscious tales of romance are as relevant in this recessionary era as they were in the more flush '90s. Cheekily, the band opened its set with "Do You Remember the First Time?" and Cocker promised "we've changed so much."

Not really, but Cocker doesn't mean it in the song, either, and that was more than fine for this chilly desert night. Cocker said the band was to perform at Coachella in 2011, but plans fell through. The band is more at home on the bill in 2012 as it is, alongside '90s-era peers Mazzy Star, Refused and Radiohead. The band kept things dark, literally, with Cocker using a flashlight instead of stage lights to view the crowd, and amping up the sexual tension in the songs.

COACHELLA 2012 | Full coverage

Songs such as "Disco 2000" and "Babies" unfold like romantic comedies. They're full of unrealistic hopes and interlopers, and Cocker manages to turn pathetic behavior into humor in only the way that pop songs and old John Cusack movies can. The way he sings, mixing in vocals with asides, adds to the levity when Cocker is telling a long-lost love that he hasn't forgotten their elementary school play time. Band mate Candida Doyle cheers him on with her keyboards, often providing slinky, electronic grooves.

Cocker is drawn to the drama. "This is Hardcore" aims to seduce but soon goes demented, building to a close with twisted horns, a theme fit for a Bond villain. "Sunrise" starts acoustic, but his backing guitarists keep him from getting too sentimental, and "The Fear" ends its I'm-getting-old paranoia with brief inflections of Spanish-flavored guitar.

Pulp fans know there was never any doubt as to what would be the final song, and Cocker stretched and teased the finale of "Common People" for all he could. Driven by Doyle's techno-tinged propulsion, Cocker waged class warfare on an ex and led a hair-raising crowd chant about being too poor to do anything but dance, drink and you can fill in the blank.

A three-day festival in which tickets top $300 with fees may not be the most obvious venue for such a message. It was one, however, repeated throughout the set. Earlier, Cocker sang of wanting to raid upper-class homes, but he doesn't alienate the audience with a revolutionary stance. Ultimately, Cocker's messages, whether political or romantic, can be summed up with a universal cliche: The grass is always greener.


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Photo: Singer Jarvis Cocker of Pulp performs onstage during day 1 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field in Indio, Calif. Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella