[12 May 2009]
Further Complications is the second proper solo record from Jarvis Cocker since disbanding his long-time outfit Pulp around 2002, and it ranks among the very best output of his career. Eleven tracks of surprisingly forceful rock from a man more known for a sonorous mumble than rock and roll screams, it’s easily Cocker’s most satisfying album since 1998’s This Is Hardcore. Turning up the volume on his band, courtesy of producer Steve Albini, seems to have been just what Cocker needed to shake off enough ennui to write and record a charmingly lecherous album about being terribly beset with ennui.
It’s just what a Pulp fan wants from Cocker, who etched out a space for himself on the ‘90s Britpop canvas as jaded elder statesmen, singing about jealousy, infidelity, and the inadequacies of himself and everyone around him. With the release of 2001’s We Love Life, a down-tempo record of country-influenced songs that sounded like someone confronting a desire to never make music again, and instead making a record about not wanting to make music any more, it became apparent that world-weariness was more than a pose for Cocker. Not long after the album’s release, Pulp broke up, and Cocker decamped to Paris with his wife. That seemed to be that.
Except, well, maybe all he needed was a little time off. First peeking his head above ground with a few collaborations, one-off performances, and even an appearance in a Harry Potter film, Cocker finally release his first solo record in 2006. With Further Complications, Jarvis is officially back in full force.
There is, of course, much to be said about the presence of Steve Albini as the album’s producer. A man famous for producing some of independent rock’s greatest records, including seminal works by the Pixies and Nirvana, Albini’s oft-repeated edict is that a producer should get out of the way of the band. This presents an interesting problem when working with a solo artist who may have collected a respectable bunch of musicians to accompany him, but does not exactly have a “band” to get out of the way of in the first place. Albini seems to have solved this problem by, well, just making the thing rock the hell out. Maybe this is Cocker’s idea, it’s hard to know. Still, there is a lot more Surfer Rosa than We Love Life in Further Complications. Track after track features pounding percussion, muscular guitars, and, not entirely to this reviewer’s joy, wailing Law & Order-style saxophones. It is quite possibly the most rock record ever recorded by Jarvis Cocker under any name, and contains almost as much yelling as it does suave purring. Which is to say, there is a lot of yelling.
“Angela”, the first track released to the blogosphere (i.e., its “lead single”), is a prime example of the album’s rockism. Cocker’s whispered come-ons hang on a distorted guitar riff and deliriously simple drumming, backed up with a willfully atonal and actively apathetic chorus of “Angela”s from the band. It’s like Cocker wandered into someone’s garage with some lyrics written on a few crumpled pages and they all decided to give it a go. “Caucasian Blues”, “Homewrecker,” and the title track all proceed in a similar fashion: Jarvis fronting the Animals.
As diverting and entertaining as this all is, we are listening to a Jarvis Cocker record, and there is serious work to be done. Namely, there are double-entendres to be muttered, graphically metaphorical sex acts to be committed, and some self-effacing shame to be relayed. Cocker does not disappoint. “Fuckingsong” ranks with the best of the sexual Jarvis tracks of all time. Listening to Jarvis becomes screwing Jarvis, an occasion for a few choice puns (“Let it song penetrate your consciousness”) and the weary disillusionment that he does so well; he’s enthralled with this idea of reaching you with his song, but he knows at the end of the day that it’s impossible, a flight of fancy, and it just weighs so heavy on his heart. It’s just the kind of despair that delights his fans.
Of course, this is something like Cocker’s 11th record in the past 25 years, and it may not contain the most deft wordplay of his career. It’s focused on the same themes that dominate much of his work: sex, death, and a sort of faux-despair at his own depravity. Whereas on previous records Cocker would pen a masterful, sneering ode to infidelity, like Different Class’ “I Spy”, Further Complications has “Homewrecker”, on which he simply sings “Here comes the homewrecker!” There’s also “Leftovers”, which recalls “Common People” in its opening. Instead of meeting her in a supermarket, though, Jarvis meets her “in a museum of paleontology”, which inspires a series of silly, if heartfelt puns: “If you wish to study dinosaurs / I know a specimen whose interest is undoubted” and “He says he loves you like a sister / Well, I guess that’s relative.”
These are minor quibbles. Further Complications finds Cocker largely leaving the comfortable pop/disco/lounge waters he’s swam in since first forming Arabacus Pulp at age 15. It’s a success. Whether he keeps on in this vein or branches out even further, this album proves you can, in fact, teach an old letch new tricks.