It’s the last day of August.
Now I know summer in terms of its weather and whatnot isn’t going to change overnight, but as far as I’m concerned autumn starts tomorrow. I love the month of September nowadays, but when I was a child, it meant going back to school; it meant the end of six weeks of freedom, it meant starting all over again. I hated it. I’d enjoy autumn more as it progressed, when the nights drew in and the likes of Halloween, Fireworks Night and of course Christmas grew nearer. I remember staring outside the living room window to watch the skies turn dark blue and the lamppost lights outside turning red before they settled into their more familiar yellow. By then, my memories of summer would have faded away to a blur, but by the time it came around again the next year and the peaks of July and August would once more drift away as quickly as they arrived, that painful tingle of knowing my favourite extended time of year was slipping from my sights hit me once more. I was born in August, so that month in particular has always felt extra special to me, with my own special day somewhere in the middle of it, usually celebrated around the time with a trip to the seaside. School seemed so very far away at this time – it was the closest I felt to feeling totally free from the things that would bring me down. Did I mention I hated school? Well I did. Fucking HATED it.
Anyway, those days are long gone, but the pain of summer ending is still rooted in me, as it is for many people, even though late July and August are no longer synonymous with freedom and are now just another month and a bit spent at work, when the grown-up realities and awareness of inconsistent British weather makes me realise that my memories of nothing but endless sunny days where it always shone beautifully on my birthday in particular (how could it not; it was my day!) were more likely than not my nostalgia playing with my head. Many a song has been written about the last days of summer, songs that were happy but also sad, wracked with the awareness that nothing lasts forever. Take The Beach Boys’ beautiful ‘All Summer Long’, which played out over the ending of American Graffiti (following that gut-punch of learning what happened to its teenage characters once they’d grown up), or the closing credits of The Simpsons‘ ‘Summer of 4ft 2’, where Homer beckons his kids to ‘get a last look at the beautiful ocean scenery’ before they drive off back home. It’s a song full of the happiness and warmth of the surf-and-cars period of that band, but the ‘won’t be long before summertime is through’ refrain never fails to bring impending shade over the perfect present moment. ‘Summer’s Gone’ by Placebo, from their great 1998 album Without You I’m Nothing, may not specifically reference summer in its lyric, but it nevertheless has the windswept ambience of a beach town already shut down for the rest of the year. It’s a sad song, but utterly beautiful and musically romantic with it.
Then there’s Pulp’s ‘David’s Last Summer’, the magnificent closing song from their 1994 masterpiece His ‘n’ Hers. That album has always been my favourite of theirs; the follow-up, 1995’s Different Class, had the bigger, more monumental singles, but my heart will always belong to the one before it, where the band were on the cusp of success, where for the first time (they’d formed in 1978 and had been releasing albums and singles since 1983) they’d made a consistently amazing LP that finally played to all of writer/singer Jarvis Cocker’s strengths, with eleven songs full of love, heartbreak, sex, social awkwardness, harsh realities and wry humour, all to the sound of colourful, bright, catchy and sleek pop melodies, and boasting the fantastic line-up of Cocker, Russell Senior, Candida Doyle, Steve Mackey and Nick Banks. This was the album with tremendous singles like ‘Do You Remember the First Time?’, ‘Babies’ and ‘Lipgloss’, as well as weapons-grade heartbreakers like ‘Have You Seen Her Lately?’, ‘Happy Endings’ and ‘Someone Like the Moon’. The first ten songs on the album are all great-to-amazing, but ‘David’s Last Summer’ is a mini-masterpiece all of its own, a spoken-word tale concerning the last moments and memories of a particular summer, with initially upbeat fun giving way to chilly, chilling, thunderous darkness. The way it moves through moods, moments and tones is remarkable and utterly seamless – by the end you can’t quite believe it’s the same song you started listening to seven minutes earlier.
Cocker sings the words in the first-person (at least to begin and end with), so he might be the ‘David’ of the song’s title – the ‘last summer’ has an air of sinister forebodingness to it – whether it means the last one until the next one or the last one full stop isn’t elaborated on. By the end it sounds and feels like the hurricane of music that takes over everything has come to sweep our narrator off into oblivion forever. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; at first, this all starts off as amusing and innocuous as the lightest Pulp songs, with the music cute, jaunty and happy, full of shuffling synths and dreamy violins swaying in the summer haze; Cocker/David and his girlfriend are walking down alongside the local stream in the heat of summer; ‘drunk on the sun’, tempted by the shade of the trees, cider cooling in the river, and eventually ‘walking to parties whilst it’s still light outside’ – there’s that sense here of the daytime stretching way past 9pm, which for me was and is that watershed moment, when as a child I’d have to go to bed, when TV programming got away with being more adult… essentially, grown-up time. And here in the summer, the night and the dark are still yet to come – there’s that tangible excitement of summer evenings being a time where as children we could stay up a little later than we would before or after, where we were permitted to play out even after we’d had our dinner. As a teen or an adult, going to these parties whilst it was still light outside is like a continuation of that same buzz one would have as a child, of a blissful, suspended moment in time, and where it could still stay as hot as the daytime once the sun had gone down.
Once we arrive at the party, we get the brief social observation of some guy there called Peter who’s managed to get over his initial bad mood and is now ‘talking to somebody Polish’ – Peter is never seen or heard of again in the song, by the way. No idea who he is. It’s a cute touch. Later, Cocker/David suggests putting up a tent for he and his girlfriend to spend the night in, where they can ‘pretend we’re somewhere foreign’ – there’s a sense of reliving the days of play-acting, of sleepovers, of using your imagination like you did as a child, of indulging in pretend-escape. But as we’re told, there’s always the reassurance of knowing that there’s a fridge nearby ‘if we get hungry…or too hot’ – escape with creature comforts, with the playful tease of sex added to the mix. It’s a cosy, joyous feeling. The bliss of this moment is perfectly encapsulated in the following lines, backed by the loveliest music:
“This is where you want to be
There’s nothing else but you and her
And how you use your time”
Weirdly, Cocker now starts to direct the lyrics at us, singing in the second-person as if we the listener are now David. It’s a great touch, as it brings us closer into the intimacy of the present moment, and we can all relate to words like that if we’ve ever been in love and been loved, sharing the excitement, the right there-right now immediacy of exciting romance. After a little interlude where Cocker goes back to the first person (‘we went driving’) and a sprightly, almost goofy instrumental section, after a repeat of the ‘this is where you want to be’ lyric, we take flight with a blissful, motorised stretch of pulsing music that glides down the road, up the path, over desire lines and past rivers, before slowing down and focusing the lyric back to the second-person with a beautiful set of lines that conjure up sights, sounds and smells such as suntan lotion on skin, the ambient hum of children playing nearby and the magical banality of specks of dust floating in the window light, the speed of which mirror that suspended sense of time when you share intimate moments with a loved one, and where all sense of reality gets lost in the sweet silence between you and your lover. By now the music has shifted gears to a blurred, late-evening slow-walk – quieter, less busy, gentler, fluttering like the spokes on a bicycle or the breeze blowing through the leaves on trees, the synths humming with the glow of nearby streetlites. Speaking of trees; they form part of a supremely evocative refrain that we only hear once but I always feel like it’s spoken more when I think back on the song, so effective and almost chant-like in its execution.
“Summer leaves fall from summer trees
Summer grazes fade on summer knees
Summer nights are slowly getting long
Summer’s going, hurry or it’ll soon be gone”
Another instrumental section follows; the breeze now blows a little colder, the mood chills a tad, and the sense of something drawing in difficult to deny – darkness. Indeed, we appear to be living out the last night of summer, acknowledged here with one last trip to the local park. The vocals are more hushed now than they were before, as though Cocker/David and his girlfriend are sneaking their way around, wary of being caught – abandoned glasshouses and the bandstand are rushed past on the way to the boating lake, where one last swim ‘for what seemed like hours’ occurs, tempered with the realisation that this could be the couple’s last dalliance together – indeed, after they emerge from the lake, both parties feel a shiver from ‘a certain movement in the air’, and almost like in a horror movie, the season starts to change before their very eyes and ears, with the leaves ‘curling and turning brown on the trees’ and the birds ‘deciding where to go for the winter’ – the music has shifted from quietly sensual and intimate to something scary and deeply unsettling. The bass and drums creep incessantly, the guitars circle over our heads like birds of prey, the synths conjure visions of darkened skies, the kind brought about from apocalyptic spells. Before they know it, our couple are on their way home, having put their clothes back on and with the environment around them offering up the ‘sound of summer packing its bags…and preparing to leave town’.
After this, the music unleashes a whirlwind of frightening, miasmic guitar, full of doom and terror, with Cocker/David screaming into the night, pleading with summer to stay, if only for a while. Or maybe it’s his girlfriend he’s singing to – maybe this relationship was only destined to last those summer months. But it’s no use – the music overwhelms him, there’s an intense, hypnotic crescendo, building and building more and more with inescapable intensity before crashing into an aftermath of summer debris, fallen leaves and dying memories. That the song closes the album itself only compounds this feeling – there’s no way ‘David’s Last Summer’ could have been anything but a final track. After this there’s nothing but silence, but also a kind of relief, of maybe having just woken up from a nightmare. The song leaves me breathless, every time – Cocker is a master of the extended narrative in pop-song format – ‘Wickerman’ from We Love Life is an absolutely incredible example of this – his way with a lyric, an allusion, an image, is unparalleled, and given that he’s blessed here with an extraordinary musical rush to complement some of the best words he’s ever written, ‘David’s Last Summer’ is, hands down, my favourite Pulp song.