"This is the sound of someone losing the plot/you're gonna like it, but not a lot." So says Jarvis Cocker on The Fear, the opening track on This Is Hardcore, the ambitious follow-up to Pulp's breakthrough Different Class, thereby providing his own review for the album. Cocker doesn't quite lose the plot on This Is Hardcore, but the ominous, claustrophobic The Fear makes it clear that this is a different band, one that no longer has anthems like Common People in mind. The shift in direction shouldn't come as a surprise -- Pulp was always an arty band -- but even the catchiest numbers are shrouded in darkness. This Is Hardcore is haunted by disappointments and fear -- by the realization that what you dreamed of may not be what you really wanted. Nowhere is this better heard than on This Is Hardcore, where drum loops, lounge piano, cinematic strings, and a sharp lyric create a frightening monument to weary decadence. It's the centerpiece of the album, and the best moments follow its tone. Some, like The Fear, Seductive Barry, and Help the Aged, wear their fear on their sleeves, some cloak it in Bowie-esque dance grooves (Party Hard) or in hushed, resigned tones (Dishes). A few others, such as the scathing I'm a Man or A Little Soul, have a similar vibe without being explicitly dark. Instead of delivering an entirely bleak album, Pulp raise the curtain somewhat on the last three songs, but the attempts at redemption -- Sylvia, Glory Days, The Day After the Revolution -- don't feel as natural as everything that precedes them. It's enough to keep the album from being a masterpiece, but it's hardly enough to prevent it from being an artistic triumph.