Jarvis Cocker:: Jarvis (Album Review)
In November 2002, Pulp took their final curtain with a compilation album called Hits. It featured opaque sleevenotes from novelist Harland Miller and one last new song, Last Day of the Miners’ Strike, that sketched out the trajectory of the early stages of Pulp’s 21-year career against pithy recollections of life in the 80s. Hits would have counted as a well thought-out, enormously dignified coda to the career of one of the 90s’ best-loved bands if it hadn’t struggled to No 71 for one week, then immediately dropped out of the charts. It was, Jarvis Cocker recently noted, a “real silent fart” that precipitated his retirement to France: “For all this worrying and soul-searching, nobody was that arsed, evidently.”
So you can’t really blame Cocker for taking a more esoteric route to his comeback, in keeping with the rarefied, defiantly non-mainstream projects he has involved himself in since his retirement: fronting electro duo Relaxed Muscle while dressed, for reasons best known to himself, as a skeleton; winning Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes with a Rolf Harris impersonation made all the more piquant by the seriousness with which he evidently took the business of singing Two Little Boys in a false beard; The Trip, a startling compilation with a remit that stretched from the Birthday Party’s Release the Bats to Radio 4 incidental music Sailing By; and, less loveably, recommending baleful US trio ARE Weapons to his manager, Rough Trade label boss Geoff Travis (Cocker was later spotted leaving an almost wilfully pathetic London ARE Weapons gig early, wearing what looked like an extremely sheepish expression).
The comeback began in the summer with the download-only single Running The World, one of the few major releases this year for which the adjective “unprecedented” seems inadequate. It arrived with a video featuring the lyrics scrolling across the screen in follow-the-bouncing-ball style: “Bluntly put in the fewest of words,” ran the chorus, delivered in a baritone croon, “cunts are still running the world.” That was followed by a series of podcasts featuring Cocker reading Icelandic folk tales and JD Salinger short stories.
All of which suggested his debut solo album would be a far less accessible affair than it turns out to be. In Pulp, Cocker’s abilities as a lyricist tended to mean that his melodic sense was overlooked – Common People remains the solitary hit of the Britpop era remembered for its lyrics rather than its tune. It’s a balance the opening tracks of Jarvis seek to redress. Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time and Black Magic are fantastic pop songs, both based around huge glam-rock riffs that sound naggingly familiar but prove impossible to place. Meanwhile, Baby’s Coming Back To Me, a luscious ballad first heard rather disappointingly rendered by Nancy Sinatra on her eponymous 2004 album, here receives a fitting treatment, decorated with hypnotic xylophone sounds that recall Gassenhauer, the short piece by Carmina Burana composer Carl Orff with which Cocker chose to open The Trip.
It’s possibly just as well that Cocker’s way with a gorgeous tune is foregrounded: without it, Jarvis might prove an impossibly bleak listen. Running the World is relegated to secret-track status – its sudden appearance 20 minutes after the album has ended only adds to its startling, foul-mouthed impact – but its bitter, blackly comic worldview permeates the rest of the album. Even the love songs sound hopeless: by the end of Baby’s Coming Back, it’s established pretty thoroughly that Baby’s never going anywhere near him again. Fat Children shifts its ire from the ruling elite to the underclass, with its protagonist murdered by the titular overweight hoodies. With typical deftness, the lyrics balance wit (“they wobbled menacingly under the yellow street light”) with outrage: the police are “elsewhere, putting bullets in some guy’s head for no particular reason”, the attackers are the spawn of parents “giving birth to maggots without the sense to become flies”. I Will Kill Again starts out listing a vision of domestic bliss to gentle flute and piano accompaniment – wife and kids, rabbits in the garden, the occasional glass of wine – only to become steadily darker as the song progresses: boredom, internet porn, false friendship, the murderous tendencies suggested in the title. It’s all the more unsettling because it isn’t entirely clear whether the lyric is meant as fiction or as an allegory for Cocker’s return to the music business that famously led him to a breakdown at the height of Pulp’s success.
It’s the only moment on Jarvis where you ponder the wisdom of Cocker’s decision to unretire himself: the rest of the time you just feel grateful that such a unique voice has returned at full power. The question of whether it will be any better received commercially than Pulp’s final releases hangs over the album, but artistically at least, Jarvis is an idiosyncratic triumph.