Jarvis Cocker, hero to a generation, crafter of anthems, wearer of distinctive glasses, wit, podcaster, Radio 4 presenter, talking head, songwriter for hire (for Marianne Faithfull, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Nancy Sinatra) and Paris emigre, is back. A jaw-dropping 27 years since forming Pulp, Jarvis has finally gotten round to releasing his debut solo album.
Not all the runes read positive for this record. The life of Jarvis Cocker following the last rattle and gasp of Pulp’s weary engine in 2002 gave every indication of a man determined to retire from the music industry. The band’s Hits compilation had troubled the UK chart for just a week, reaching Number 71. He dressed up in a luminous skeleton outfit and called himself Darren in the electro pastiche that was Relaxed Muscle. He won Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes impersonating Rolf Harris. He formed the Hogwarts house band in a Harry Potter movie with members of Radiohead. He married, grew his hair and moved to Paris. He directed videos for Aphex Twin, Erlend Óye and Nightmares on Wax. He presented shows about art on Radio 4, his dulcet baritone infused with sardonic Sheffield humour.
And then, suddenly, he released a furious rant, Running The World, on to MySpace. Guaranteed to catch attention as a song by Jarvis, the gangly Yorkshireman cemented its appeal with a fiery chorus using what is to some still a great taboo word. Thus far his flirtation with cyberspace has proved to be an inspired move. A heads-up to all and sundry that one of his generation’s best lyricists was back from exile, Jarvis explained in no uncertain terms who he considered still to be Running The World (to cut a long story short, cunts). Musically too it was a searing return to form. Suddenly, there was talk, hope and expectation of an album.
Pulp might be dead (or on “indefinite hiatus” in industry-speak), but the band’s latter-day guitarist Richard Hawley – now a Mercury nominee in his own right with three albums behind him – and bassist Steve Mackey are back for Jarvis’s return. It’s fortunate he has friends around him for what is in many ways the darkest album he’s made. Dealing with themes as wide-ranging as hoodies running amok, adjusting to one’s lot in life and – of course – delusional love, it stands comparison with anything released by Pulp.
The opener Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time, originally written for Nancy Sinatra’s 2004 album, is as conventional as the album gets – a catchy chorus and guitar lick from Hawley holding together lyrics, typically of Jarvis down the years, that advise a female friend on the useless male taking up her time. Heavy Weather too is a relatively ordinary country-tinged number, complete with meterological sound effects, that marks the record’s only outward glance across the pond to America.
His voice is freer elsewhere. On I Will Kill Again and Big Julie he eschews his breathy, pouty style for a demonstration of his singing abilities – a baritone voice that can comfortably hold notes over two octaves. But this record’s music is as captivating as the fruitier lyrics or Jarvis’ vocal performances. Disney Time’s choral and strings backing and timely chord changes make it amongst the most epic songs Jarvis has penned.
Baby’s Coming Back To Me begins with the radio playing his favourite song, the sun shining and peace breaking out in the world – a happy time. The last missing piece of the jigsaw would be the return of “Baby”, his lover. But as the song progresses in a cutesy flurry of xzylophones and glocks it becomes increasingly plain that Baby is certainly not returning any time soon. It’s a pointer to the rest of the record, beginning cheerily before descending to desperate places.
Black Magic sounds like nothing Pulp ever recorded – a glam-as-they-come anthem in the manner of Lou Reed, full of opportunities for Jarv to throw and twitch his lanky frame about on a stage if he so chooses. I Will Kill Again, one of the stand-outs, begins as a description of a “real nice guy” doing standard nice guy things who, as the song pans out, becomes a desperate, trapped individual with pathological tendencies: “Don’t believe me if I claim to be your friend, coz given half the chance I know that I will kill again.” It’s an ambivalence that might be scary if Jarvis didn’t already have form with the darker side of psychology with Different Class’s thrilling I Spy.
Fat Children is the record’s punchiest, punkiest moment, full of bile for maggot-like offspring of uncaring parents “without the sense to become flies”. Part Daily Mail rant, part despairing tirade against police priorities, the caustic lyrics sit atop an utterly compelling and bass-heavy musical arrangement with instrumental sections that could only have come from Sheffield.
From A To I, featuring keyboards that sound startlingly like the work of Pulp’s Candida Doyle, takes on the decline and fall of the British Empire where Edward Gibbon left off with Rome – “ah, behold the decline and fall, all hold hands with our backs to the wall” and the best rhyming couplet of the record: “It’s the end, why don’t you admit it/it’s the same from Auschwitz to Ipswich.” Tonite, with its ’50s rock’n’roll feel, recalls Richard Hawley’s retro solo material more than Pulp and as such is one of the record’s more upbeat moments. Big Julie, as a tale of a striking woman at odds with her surroundings, feels like a companion piece to The Night That Minnie Timperley Died from Pulp’s final studio album We Love Life.
Almost finally, Quantum Theory is the closest Jarvis’ own songs have come to the dark world of Scott Walker. “Somewhere everyone is happy, somewhere fish do not have bones/ somewhere gravity cannot reach us anymore, somewhere you are not alone” summarises the album – a hunt for happiness, a frustration at not finding it. It’s witty, poignant and memorable all at once. Eerie strings and cavern-like echoes recall Walker’s tortured production techniques, resulting in a piece to sit alongside We Love Life’s Sunrise – produced by Walker – but more complex, more fully realised. “Everything is gonna be alright,” he repeats to a crescendo, then one last reassuring time. But after all that’s gone before, the question remains: Who’s he trying to convince?
Just when it should be time to emerge from behind the couch, after 20 minutes of silence Running The World sparks to life. Relegated to secret track status, it surprises the unwary all over again with just how angry, catchy and indispensible it is – with postcode schooling, the free market and everything in between coming in for a bashing.
So, more than the bleakest tracks of This Is Hardcore, Jarvis the album is ultimately a record born of its writer looking for answers and failing to find any of those suggested to be appealing. As such, it’s lyrically depressing, but if you’re down in the dumps about the ills of the world and frustrated by a lack of personal achievement, there’s surely not a better companion piece to have to hand as you wallow.