By Jarvis Cocker's reckoning, Pulp's return to their hometown of Sheffield comes just a month shy of their first show as a band, 43 years ago. It's a handy reminder that while the band rose to fame in the Britpop era, Pulp coalesced while the key players in 'Cool Britannia' were still sharing drags on cigarettes behind school bike sheds, and were actually birthed in the shadow of grandiose art-pop, brooding post-punk and sleek new wave.
"You will remember this show for the rest of your life," declare screens either side of the stage tonight, and sure enough the band's arrival is a grand affair worthy of occasion. A multi-tier stage set-up sees a string section underpin a powerful, protracted intro for I Spy, with Cocker's brooding baritone issued from the depths as he arrives on a rising platform.
For all the moodiness of the intro, it isn't long before the spell is broken. "Y'alright?" Cocker drawls at the song's end. "We’re Pulp. I’ve a question for you - are we going to have it, or have it?”.
And with that, the hits start to flow, a strutting Disco 2000 met with the exalted sounds of a city belting out anthems birthed in its confines. Cocker acknowledges as much a little later, stating that "playing Sheffield is just different, because you know where these songs come from."
For all the trappings of arena-level production that Pulp bring - confetti, streamers and laser shows, the whole nine yards - it's a remarkably relaxed, convivial atmosphere for their comeback. Cocker addresses the crowd like friends he's run into down the pub, resembling a strange, favourite teacher more than the typical rock star as he gives pithy monologues, and at one point throws chocolates and grapes from his pockets out to members of the audience.
Unsurprisingly, the band's '90s era dominates their setlist - practically all of Different Class makes an appearance - but the sheer variety on display is testament to how supremely iconoclastic the group remain. The funky new-wave-by-way-of-disco beat of Mis-Shapes gives way to poignant, emotional alt rock on Something Changed - Cocker strapping on an acoustic guitar and dedicating the song to late bassist Steve Mackey who passed away in March - while elsewhere the band indulge in arch kitchen sink melodramatics on towering renditions of F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E. and This Is Hardcore, the latter's string-accompaniment and noir stylings making it feel like a Bond theme birthed in the ruins of a decaying empire.
The solemnity of the instrumentals is often undercut by Cocker's playful stage presence; more than once he delivers lines whilst lying flat on the stairwell, while Britpop-era hits Pink Glove, Do You Remember The First Time? and Babies see him throw shapes that, given his clean-shaven visage, feel like he has found some miraculous portal back to the mid-'90s and will moon Michael Jackson at any moment. A swaying, triumphant Sorted For E's and Whizz even brings whimsy to the set, it's psychedelic light show accompaniment and bouncy beat evoking shades of Bowie.
Support act Richard Hawley joins the band on guitar for a powerful Sunrise, the song building to an enormous crescendo as a multi-bulbed sun prop is raised with Cocker's silhouette at its centre, a suitably dramatic and epic moment to close the main set. An encore of Like A Friend and Underwear get the crowd riled up for a tub-thumping finish; Common People is amplified by some 13,000 voices roaring along.
Somehow, even that isn't the big finale. The massive clubland funk of After You captures the ecstasy soaked era that saw Madchester give way to Britpop itself and the band finally round out the night with Razzmatazz and the perfectly titled Glory Days, the screens now showing a supercut of Pulp videos and footage for a final blast of heady nostalgia.
In an era where "massive comeback" often yields only a combination of massive pound signs and diminishing returns, Pulp's own encore feels in keeping with the spirit of a band that rose to prominence during one of Britain's most creatively fertile periods but could never be stylistically squared away as following the crowd. Cocker's misfits-celebrating crew are still very much marching to their own beat and proving that their inimitable, iconoclastic status still remains potent four decades on from their debut, with vibrancy that makes their set feel like a truly special occasion. Common? Not in a million years, cocker.
Pulp Setlist Sheffield Friday July 14 2023
- I Spy
- Disco 2000
- Something Changed
- Pink Glove
- Weeds II (The Origin Of The Species)
- Sorted For E's & Whizz
- This Is Hardcore
- Do You Remember The First Time?
- Like A Friend
- Common People
- After You
- Glory Days