[20 November 2006]
Sitting here in 2006, it’s rather clear that time has been kind to Jarvis. Looking back over the bloated corpse of Britpop and the fag ends of all that empty triumphant excess, there’s little doubt in this listeners mind that Pulp remain the only band untainted by the madness and idiocy of that time. Oasis might have changed more people’s lives and Blur will always have sold more records, but listening to an album like Different Class now, it exudes an eloquence, insight and dignity that nothing else from that era can touch. And when you’re always going to be known as the bloke that stormed the stage and wiggled your arse at Michael Jackson, retaining your dignity is perhaps an impressive achievement.
The best Pulp songs were always the ones rooted in failure -– they were the sound of having a brain, and all these useless aspirations and still waking up to the same old shit-hole every day. Songs like “Disco 2000” and “Babies” offered release in the form of a three-minute giddy pop song, that made those broken hopes and frustrations somehow worthwhile. They were songs that, just for a little while, made you want to put two fingers up and sing along. You see, Jarvis was one of us.
Of course, there was a parallel between all these songs about “single mothers and sex” and failure, and Cocker’s own career trajectory. Having spent 15 years scratching around Sheffield and making weird little songs that, although often brilliant, had about as much chance of breaking into the mainstream as your average Norwegian death metal release, Jarvis finally made it onto Top of the Pops, stormed the cover of Smash Hits, and for a while at least, became the pop star of his dreams. Or his nightmares as it turned out; because while Jarvis made an undeniably fantastic natural pop star, beneath the funny dancing, he was busy losing the plot. This Is Hardcore was the sound of the Britpop party told from the morning after.
The record was summed up on “The Fear” with the lines “This is the sound of someone losing the plot/ Making out that they’re okay when they’re not/ You’re gonna like it, but not a lot”—the air of psychosis and creeping paranoia made worse by the chilling image of Paul Daniels. Unsurprisingly, the British record buying public weren’t willing to go along for the ride, and the album stiffed. Viewing it now though, it’s hard to see This Is Hardcore as anything other than Pulp’s finest hour. It certainly made more sense than the rampant laddishness and cocaine bluster of Oasis’ Be Here Now, and professionally, if not personally, showed Jarvis to be right on the button. Now, five years since Pulp’s last record, Jarvis is back from getting married, having a son and living in Paris, and would seem to be in rude health.
The first thing that’s immediately noticeable about Jarvis is how fantastic the tunes are. The tendency to focus on Cocker’s lyrics has often threatened to overshadow what wonderful pop moments he’s always served up. “Common People” is essentially remembered as an acidic piece of social commentary, when the most striking thing about the song is surely that it’s one the most dizzily thrilling pieces of pop music of the last 20 years. Here, the opening trio of songs, “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time”, “Black Magic” and “Heavy Weather”, all shoot by with naggingly familiar hooks and choruses, sounding like old hits after just a couple of listens. After a short piano intro, “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time” is the sort of strutting pop song that a man of Jarvis’ age embarking on a respectable solo career really should think twice about—and it’s all the better for it. Jarvis tells the girl in the song “he can kiss you where the sun don’t shine”, when he really should know better. Even better still is “Black Magic”, which is a heavy, fuzzy stomp through all the slightly seedy glam-rock moments that Pulp used to do so well.
Though Jarvis never approaches the air of creeping paranoia that was all over This Is Hardcore, it does share with that record a sense of darkness and despairing humour, only this time Jarvis is looking at the world around him rather than the fuss of his own life. “Fat Children”; the story of a man who gets killed for his phone while the police are elsewhere, “putting bullets in some guy’s head for no particular reason”, is eerily prophetic seeing as it’s the sort of story that seems to buzz almost weekly from the six o-clock news. On “Disney Time”, Jarvis compares all those sickly-sweet Disney cartons with pornographic films in the way they offer a glimpse of a perfect, sanitised “view of a world so much better than the one we knew”. He whispers “... tell your children that everything’s gonna be just fine, now it’s Disney Time”, as the slightly sinister strings build—and it’s clear that this song is never getting anywhere near the soundtrack to a Disney film.
The love songs on Jarvis too are deliciously barbed and unpredictable. “I Will Kill Again” begins to paint a picture of a cosy domestic life with “the family safe from harm”, before it ends with the songs protagonist looking at internet porn in the night and admitting that “Given half the chance/ I know that I will kill again”. Even the seemingly sweet “Baby’s Coming Back to Me”, originally recorded by Nancy Sinatra but done far better here, exudes an air of creepy menace and delusion.
Coming some 25 minutes after the Scott Walker-esque ballad “Quantum Theory” has faded out, the album’s last gasp, “Running the World”, feels strangely like its centrepiece. It’s probably the song here that most recalls Pulp, except I can’t remember Pulp ever sounding quite like this. “Cocaine Socialism” eight years on, “Running the World”, as well as being an excuse to revel in a bit of (wholly necessary) profanity, is also something more touching. Apparently written during the triumphant television coverage of Live 8, it’s a modern day protest song aimed at all those untouchable people right at the top of the tree. “They say cream cannot help but rise up to the top/ Well I say shit floats”, sings Jarvis before the chorus refrain of “Cunts are still running the world”. In an alternative reality this could have been the perfect end to the Live 8 spectacular. Indeed, what could have been more fitting than having Sting, Bono and Mariah Carey and her children’s choir of orphans, holding hands and repeating the line “cunts are still running the world” to the global millions?
“Running the World” tells you in four minutes why Jarvis is a record that matters. And it’s not because it’s a searing social protest song (it is) that will change the world (it won’t), it just that things sound a bit more interesting with someone like Jarvis around. The album’s sound of gentle piano chords, reverb-laden guitars and subtle string arrangements is, whisper it, more mature than the careering Casio bleeps and whooshes of Pulps heyday, but the more measured approach suits the songs. Jarvis has enough subtle varieties, acerbic lyrics and unexpected twists like the vibraphone and marimba led “Baby’s Coming Back to Me”, to keep things interesting and jarring.
Jarvis is clearly a one-off, for whom an awful lot people reserve a great deal of affection—and however good this record is, you get the impression it was always going to be greeted kindly. It’s a joy to report then that his first solo venture is genuinely a great record. There are songs here that easily stand up to any of Pulp’s high-points, and sound totally unique against the backdrop of 2006. It’s a record that is funny, witty and at times impossibly scathing whilst also remaining strangely beautiful. As the hours have got darker our entertainers seem to have become more banal and mediocre in response—thank god then for a proper pop star like Jarvis. It’s good to have him back.