JARV IS…, the new band/social experiment from Pulp leader Jarvis Cocker, was “conceived as a way of writing songs in collaboration with an audience”. They first formed to play at Sigur Rós’ “Norður og Niður” festival in Iceland in 2017, and have spent the time between then and now cultivating, growing and nurturing the seven songs that appear here on the excellently-named Beyond The Pale.
At the insistence of maestro Geoff Barrow (Portishead, Beak>), the songs would be trialled in front of an audience, but then used to form the basis of a new LP. It’s a terrific idea, from a man who seems to have had more than his fair share of them. The band consists of Jarvis himself on vocals, guitar and occasional percussion, and collaborators Serafina Steer (harp, keyboards, vocals), Emma Smith (violin, guitar vocals), Andrew McKinney (bass, vocals), Jason Buckle (synthesiser and electronic treatments) and Adam Betts (drums, percussion, vocals).
If you’ve made your way here because you’re a fan of Pulp post-Different Class, you’re in for a treat. If you’re here as a hardcore devotee to whatever spills from Jarvis Cocker’s luxurious pen, then you’re also on solid ground. If you’re a fan of Leonard Cohen’s mid-career peak (I’m Your Man, The Future, Ten New Songs etc.) then, trust us, you’re in wonderland.
The parallels between the two artists at this stage of their respective careers are enticing to think about. When Cohen was in his mid 50s, he found a new creative avenue to pursue, and ended up making – arguably – his best album in over a decade with 1988’s masterpiece I’m Your Man. The same could be said for Jarvis too, as this record features much of his best work since This is Hardcore (released in 1998!)
Another parallel exists in the fact that there are clear nods to to The Grumpy One scattered throughout Beyond The Pale. Album opener Save The Whale was inspired by Nick Broomfield’s Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love documentary, and it even sounds like a Leonard Cohen song in many respects, so Leonard’s presence looms large over proceedings. With its stabbing strings, crappy drum machines, exalting backing vocals and Jarvis’ hushed and sexy groanings, you’re almost there – it’s only when he utters these immortal words that the true comparison becomes clear: “I’ve seen people daubing the walls with semen & blood/I swear to God, I’m not making any of this up”.
On the second track MUST I EVOLVE?, the chain of influence appears to have been drawn from different points in time – echoes of Sheffield-via-Mars glam maniacs The Moonlandingz and krautrock titans NEU! combine and blend and swirl together like the very primordial goo that serves as the central metaphor for the track. Jarvis is never one to miss a lyrical zinger either, and the way he sets up his similes is world-class: “I entered a dance-off/You laughed your head off/Afterwards steaming like a horse in the morning after a race”. It’s fantastic.
Am I Missing Something is this album’s First We Take Manhattan, with its hissing, clicking metronome rhythms and creeping, glowering existential doom. House Music All Night Long, with its retro-futuristic synth twinkles and oddly anthemic chorus, plays out like one of those YouTube remixes where producers like William Maranci smash seemingly incongruous pairings of songs together to produce maximum nostalgic euphoria.
Sometimes I Am Pharaoh is the only psychedelic rock song ever written about the street performers you see at crowded tourist hotspots who stand completely still then “suddenly move and everyone jumps in surprise” (Jarvis’ words). Then there’s the jazzy, dubby Swanky Modes, which is about a “clothes shop on the Camden Road” – and that’s Jarvis playing the wobbly bass line. The dubby textures continue in Children Of The Echo, and the album is drawn to a rather abrupt conclusion.
This is the only problem with Beyond The Pale, and it’s a minor complaint – it’s just a touch too short. Each of the seven tracks runs between four and a half and six and a half minutes, so there’s an album’s worth of seconds here, but it just feels one track short of perfect. Whether that’s a universal complaint, or a matter of taste, remains to be seen –-but by the time you get fully warmed up you’ve only got a couple of tracks to go.
That aside, the headlines are that this is a mid-career highlight from one of the finest lyricists and sonic set-dressers this country has produced. It’s a little bit silly, a little bit raunchy and a whole lot of fun – something the world is in desperately short supply of. Simply put, JARV IS… a winner.