Collaborations are strange but interesting things. While we are at it, so are concept albums. Both forms of expression can be beguiling, confusing, or just plain irritating, depending on the execution. As with most things, the success or failure of the art in question is contingent upon the ingredients used and how they fit together.
The prospect of, for instance, a collaboration between Jonathan Davis from Korn and pop-country hitmakers Lady Antebellum on a concept album about the life of Jefferson Davis might be fascinating in the same way that a bad car accident is fascinating, but it would also be something that you would want to forget about as soon as possible. The Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales collaboration/concept album Room 29 is certainly far more enjoyable than the ghastly hypothetical dreamed up above, but it also fails to capitalize on the undeniable talents of the two collaborators involved.
Room 29 is a concept album about the sordid decadence that has transpired within the confines of Hollywood’s famous Chateau Marmont, specifically in Room 29. There is clearly a fairly large constituency of people who are endlessly fascinated by the history of Hollywood; the drugs, the sexual transgressions, the bottomless wells or hubris, etc. Unfortunately, I am not a member of this constituency. Exactly how much scotch Jim Morrison may have consumed within the walls of the Chateau Marmont, or with whom various starlets from the 1950s may have been trysting with, does not hold much allure for me.
This point may be the critical factor in determining if any individual listener will appreciate Room 29: are you a big Pulp fan who also loves reading books about the Golden Age of Hollywood? If you can answer in the affirmative, then maybe Room 29 is exactly what you are looking for. For the rest of us, the actual songs on Room 29 never quite get off the ground or escape the confines of their conceptual universe.
Songs like “Tearjerker” and “Clara” are pretty, with some very nice piano work courtesy of Gonzales, but they fail to leave much impact or stay with the listener after the album is over. A sense of wistful nostalgia in embedded throughout Room 29 and how affecting this mood is will depend on your connection with the subject matter. In some respects, Jarvis Cocker’s radio show Wireless Nights is more reflective of his performance on Room 29 than his more well known music. Cocker’s voice is always intimate, infused with longing and desire. His voice on Room 29 evokes pictures of lonely, sun-drenched afternoons in Los Angeles: drowsy, poignant, and isolated. Nowhere on Room 29 does Cocker even attempt to evoke the anthemic qualities of Pulp’s best material; his nocturnal whisperings on Wireless Nights are a much more relevant touchstone.
Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales are both undeniably adept musicians and performers. Serious fans of either of these two collaborators will probably want to pick up a copy of Room 29. For the casual listener, however, there is not a great deal to hold onto. These songs drift by languidly, as if they had been dipping into John Belushi’s barbiturate stash, leaving the listener somewhat foggy headed, but otherwise unchanged.