Jarvis Cocker has a curious reputation to live up to.
For die-hard Pulp fans, his first solo album, Jarvis, is going to have a lot to answer for. For people who only vaguely remember him as that guy who jumped onstage during the 1996 Brit awards and got himself arrested for scaring Michael Jackson, it may not touch as deeply. This creates an interesting conundrum, because the people who need to hear this the most may not.
On past Pulp songs like their biggest hit, “Common People,” Cocker and band established themselves as some of the most astute critics of society and class that had ever been on the music scene. If you delved deeper into Pulp’s back catalogue you knew they were some seedy motherfuckers (“Seductive Barry,” off 1998’s This Is Hardcore, breathed so heavily for eight minutes that I always ended up feeling like I needed to take a shower, and that is saying nothing about the title track). With this record, Cocker finds himself a little bit older, a little tired of singing about drugs and empty sex, and focuses more on the personal, human sides of these people whose stories populate his songs, these people who fall through the cracks. There are straight-up my baby’s back / my baby’s gone / my baby don’t love me no more songs here, and one song, “Black Magic,” steals the backing vocals from “Crimson and Clover” while wailing about immortality.
The opener, “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time” was originally written for Nancy Sinatra’s self-titled 2004 record, and it’s worth noting how the tone of the song changes when you switch the narrators—Sinatra’s version is quieter, acoustic, and almost motherly, while Jarvis‘s version has more swagger and emphasis on the cheek in the lyrics (“And then some skinny bitch walks by in some hotpants / and he’s running for the door”). Oddly enough, this song also illustrates that Jarvis Cocker spends a lot of time thinking about women. Not in a thinking-about-tits-and-ass thinking about women kind of way, either—he seems to really understand them and sympathize with them.
One of the album’s centerpieces, “Big Julie,” is a quiet examination of a small-town girl who can’t escape (“And the radio plays an unknown song that has nothing at all to do with God / But it’s miles away from this sad town and the stupid kids who get her down / Just wait until Big Julie rules the world”), and he treats the subject matter with such reverence and understanding that the song aches and worries at its seams with its own sorrow. (A side note: I listened to this song in the car with my father and when it came to the line “And she knows sex is just for dummies anyway: something you do when you’ve run out of things to say” he looked at me incredulously and said “That’s a HORRIBLE attitude to have!” Well, exactly.)
And Jarvis Cocker is distinctly pissed off at Americans.
It doesn’t always work: “Disney Time” feels a little bit like self-righteous speechmaking, and in “From A to I” he comes off like someone’s horrified father who doesn’t get these damn kids today or why they don’t do anything with their lives (“Ah, the past devours the future / The world is changing shape / And someone’s getting a piercing done—for goodness sake”) But when it does work, as on the hidden track “Running The World” (mp3), previously only available on MySpace, the bald-faced contempt that he seems to have for the American way of life, specifically the destruction of the working class, is perfectly realized and impeccably-worded. Because guess who is running the world? Cunts. There is something delicious about such a fuck-you being spoken with such a distinctly British phrase.
With Jarvis, Mr.Cocker hasn’t created a perfect album, but he’s created one with all the Jarvis Cocker hallmarks—contempt, sorrow, an astonishing way with lyrics, and the impossibility of love amidst all of that, and while it’s not perfect, it veers dangerously close to the sublime at times. Is that a complete contradiction? Yeah, maybe, but nothing about being a fan of this music should be easy.
MP3: Jarvis Cocker – “Running The World” (courtesy of Insound).
Jarvis Cocker – Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time