Jarvis Cocker, writer of snarky songs about sexual starvation, self-annihilation, existential drift and general human folly, did two things he never thought he’d do in the last few years.
“I got married and had a kid,” says the ex-leader of the great British band Pulp. “Those are the things that are supposed to make you a well-balanced, responsible adult. But to tell you the truth, I haven’t felt much more balanced or responsible since I did it. External events don’t fundamentally change you.”
Listening to Cocker’s first solo album, “Jarvis,” proves the point with songs about the impossibility of world peace, the damaging effects of Disney-type movies on kids, the flimsiness of hope and the presence of evil in us all.
Thankfully, each of these sentiments is delivered with a “what the hell” wit. They’re also hitched to fetching, `60s-influenced tunes, making it all go down with a wry ease.
The balance will surprise no one who has cherished this 44-year-old singer’s work on bracing Pulp albums like “This Is Hardcore” or “We Love Life.” In one quintessential song with that band, Cocker summed up his life by likening it to a lousy movie with “bad dialogue, bad acting, no story and no sex.”
At least complaints about that last element have eased for the new CD. “I’m middle-aged now,” Cocker says, “so I’ve become impotent.”
But seriously, folks ... “A lot of the songs that dealt with sex in Pulp were written after I’d moved down to London, where I was celibate for about a year—not by choice,” the songwriter says.
Pulp toiled for a long time in obscurity before breaking big (at least in England) in the mid to late `90s. Cocker even caused an international scandal in 1996 when he disrupted a performance by Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards, after being sickened by the star’s self-importance.
The subsequent fame got to Cocker. “Some people like the fact that they can have an entourage and that their feet need never touch the ground,” he says. “But as a writer, that cuts you off from the world, which is your material. I was out of my natural habitat.”
That’s one reason Cocker broke up Pulp a few years ago. He says he never fell out with the other guys (two members of the band play on his solo effort). But he started to feel guilty that the other musicians “always had to wait for me to get my act together with the lyrics. I was holding everything up and it was stressful.”
Cocker’s life was also changing. He met a French woman whom he wanted to marry. She wanted to move back to Paris, and he thought he could use fresh inspiration. In France, he wound up writing songs for other artists to sing. Over the past few years, Cocker has written precise and acerbic material for singers from Marianne Faithfull and Nancy Sinatra to Air and Charlotte Gainsbourg. “It’s like taking a vacation from yourself,” he says.
For a while, Cocker even considered retiring from music entirely. “I’d been in pop since I was 14,” he says. “And when you approach 40 you start to think about doing something else.”
Ironically, walking away from music—at least in his mind—freed him to come back to it with a fresh perspective. The turnaround shows on “Jarvis.” It’s a slower, more contemplative album than Pulp’s works, without the slam-bang snap of glam in the music.
“I wrote the songs on my own for the first time and in the house,” Cocker explains. “If I suddenly started screaming, I would freak my wife and kids out. And the neighbors might have something to say about it, too.”
Yet “Jarvis” hardly ranks as a soft, confessional singer-songwriter CD. There are lots of pop elements, including a prominent sample of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover,” plus some Dylanesque melodic references. There are probably more character songs than usual, like “Big Julie” about a lonely, fat schoolgirl.
Yet the most frequent theme on the album is the unsustainability of joy. “When you get older you find you have to make the most of happiness when it’s there,” he says. “But you can’t be happy all the time, unless you’re mentally deranged.”
Having said that, Cocker believes it’s important to accept that some sense of derangement lives in us all. In the new song “From Auschwitz to Ipswich,” he offers the ultimate banality-of-evil song, insisting that it’s a short leap from the concentration camps to the suburbs. “`Auschwitz’ is one of those words where, if you say it at a dinner party, everyone goes `Oh dear,’” Cocker says. “I chose to connect it to Ipswich because it’s one of the most innocuous towns in England.”
Being Jarvis Cocker, of course, he thinks that at least a little bit of derangement is a good thing. In “I Will Kill Again” the songwriter depicts your average responsible dad—himself, perhaps?—spending his free time at night drinking bottles of wine while logging on to the Internet to gape at naked women.
“We all have a dark side,” Cocker says with a laugh. “If we were sensible all the time, we’d die of boredom.”
// Notes from the Road
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