As Jarvis Cocker points out in his liner notes for the 2006 double-disc set The Peel Sessions, Pulp allegedly holds "the world record for The Longest Gap Between First & Second Sessions (12 years!)" -- a situation that says more about Pulp than it does about John Peel, since there is a reason why the legendary British DJ didn't quickly invite the Sheffield group back to his studios: it took them a long time to realize the potential they demonstrated at the outset of this career. This set cuts out that long decade of struggle -- since there are no Peel sessions documenting the stilted steps forward during the '80s, those awkward transitions are nowhere to be found, which makes the leap forward from 1981 to 1993 all the more startling. The tentative yet exuberant art-punk on their first session has plenty of promise -- its gangly rhythms, jittery guitars, swaths of synths, and echoed vocals all recalling Factory Records' tightly wound sound without belonging to it, largely due to Jarvis himself, whose schoolboy poetry has a beguiling innocence and whose love of pop already is peeking out behind his artiness. That artiness may overwhelm "Refuse to Be Blind," which only points the way toward the murk of Pulp's mid-'80s work, but the other three cuts from 1981 -- the insistent, surging "Turkey Mambo Momma," the cheerfully dorky "Please Don't Worry," and the understated melancholia of "Wishful Thinking" -- all show a good art-pop at their beginnings, fumbling forward but performing with a kinetic enthusiasm that makes this session better than Pulp's debut proper, It.
Once "Refuse to Be Blind" wraps up, The Peel Sessions jumps forward 12 years to the summer of 1993, just as Pulp was leaving the indie Gift behind for the major Island -- just as the band was beginning to blossom, actually. Jarvis had devised his outsider persona, raising his obsessions with sex and otherness to near-mythic levels, and the band had developed a sound to match: a blend of '70s glam and pop tempered by the artiness of '80s indie post-punk, both in its mood and its emphasis on Cocker's lyrics, which recalled Morrissey's dominance in the Smiths without ever sounding like Moz. The 1993 session consisted of two of the moodier numbers that would later appear on 1994's His 'n' Hers -- "Pink Glove" and "Acrylic Afternoons" -- plus "You're a Nightmare," unreleased to now but of a piece with its companions, only not as immediate or hooky. Immediacy and hooks were what distinguished the other parts of His 'n' Hers written after this session and they drove Pulp's 1995 masterpiece Different Class, and three cuts from that seminal effort were played for Peel in 1994: "Underwear," "Common People," and "Pencil Skirt," all sounding glorious here, if not quite as robust as they would just a year later, when a road-tested Pulp, buoyed by the Brit-pop phenomenon of the mid-'90s, conquered Glastonbury and hit number one with "Common People," thereby sending the band to superstardom. Here, the band does not play with the authority of stars; they're still hungry and nervy, which makes this an interesting contrast to the assured live performances they'd deliver not long afterward (to hear exactly how, compare the "Common People" here to the Glastonbury performance on the Different Class deluxe edition released at the same time). Even their next Peel session -- which does not arrive immediately after the 1994 session for some reason; rather it's sandwiched between two latter-day performances on the second disc -- doesn't showcase Pulp as superstars: it was recorded just prior to the release of Different Class and contains none of the songs from the album, just the Trainspotting anthem "Mile End" and two singles from His 'n' Hers, "Do You Remember the First Time?" and "Babies." The confidence is there, but not necessarily assurance: they're conquering, they haven't conquered yet. Nevertheless, the performances are absolutely cracking, particularly a bracing "Babies."
The rest of the set doesn't chronicle either the conquering Pulp of 1995/1996 or the dark introspection of 1998's This Is Hardcore: it contains three sessions from 2001, all from the last days of the band, just as they were releasing their final album, We Love Life. The first of these was performed a couple months before the album's release, featuring three of the album's songs plus the otherwise unavailable "Duck Diving"; the second derives from a performance aired in conjunction with the BBC's 40 Years in Broadcasting Celebrations, finding Pulp covering "Theme from Peter Gunn," reviving "Sorted for E's and Wizz," then doing two Hardcore songs before finishing out with "Sunrise"; the final is taken from a performance at the Birmingham Academy not long after the album's release, where four songs from We Love Life are balanced by "The Fear," "Party Hard," and "Common People." All three sessions stand in direct contrast to the unwieldy band first heard in the 1981 session: this is an assured group of veterans whose new music is nuanced and complex and performed with skill that makes it seem easy, yet also able to perform the old favorites with spirit -- not so that they sound fresh, necessarily, but they still sound vital. It's as if that long wait to return to Peel's studios made Pulp determined to make each of their (what turned out to be many) sessions count, even when they were stars, even when they were quietly winding down their career, and that's what makes this a necessary addendum to their career.