Jarvis Cocker: “The Jarvis Cocker Record”

If you ask me, there aren’t many popstars more fascinating and distinctive than Jarvis Cocker. For twenty years now he’s been one of the most curious and compelling personalities in all of music– while his Britpop peers like Damon Albarn and the Brothers Gallagher have founded their reputations on arrogance and ambition, Cocker stands out for his conscience, his character, and his craft.

That’s never been more obvious than it is on his first solo album– simply titled Jarvis on the cover, The Jarvis Cocker Record on the CD’s spine. Here, the lead singer of the late, great British band Pulp has put his name to a batch of songs that rank among the finest of his career. That doesn’t mean it’s superior to his work with his former bandmates– though really, Pulp always felt like the Jarvis Cocker Show anyway. This isn’t an album that matches such classics as Different Class and This is Hardcore in its vision and scope, but it does compare favorably to both of them in terms of songcraft.

Indeed, craft is the word that springs to one’s mind while listening to this record. While Pulp’s albums always had a sense of adventure, Jarvis feels more like the work of a man who knows his skills, and it’s carefully calculated to appeal to his strengths. That doesn’t mean it’s a boring or mundane record, because the melodies, the lyrics, and the production are all so sharp. Nor is it cold or impersonal– in fact, it feels more autobiographical than anything Cocker’s done since Different Class.

It’s a rare achievement– a set of songs that works equally well as an album or as a batch of singles. The sequencing and momentum of the disc make it a pleasure to listen to in one sitting, but the individual songs are strong enough to stand out on your iPod’s shuffle mode.

The melodies are simple and ingenious– efficient, hooky, and immediate. They’ll sink their teeth into you immediately, but the production– as rich and detailed as Blur’s Parklife— will keep things sounding fresh. And, because it’s less dependent on synthesizers than Pulp’s work, it has a timeless quality that albums like His and Hers lack.

One of the strangest and most compelling things about Cocker, though, is his cynical, depressive sense of black humor. This record marks the most pessimistic of his career– it’s the sound of a man slowly losing hope, a gradual descent into despair. Even songs that aren’t directly despairing are marked by a feeling of dread– like the ironic detachment of “Baby’s Coming Back to Me,” or the sense that time is running out on “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time.”

So it may be a downer, but there’s still some wisdom and humor here, which make it very listenable. The best moments are the ones in which Jarvis turns his despair inward, realizing his own culpability in the world’s decay– like on the chilling “I Will Kill Again,” and especially “From A to I,” the sharpest song about terrorism you’ll hear all year.

The only misstep is the album’s disappointing closer, “Quantum Theory,” in which Jarvis looks for hope in the death of God while still clinging to the idea of his own immortality.

And yes… for those who first heard of Cocker through his blockbuster Internet-only single– the blunt, foul-mouth political diatribe “Running the World”– the song is indeed included here, as an unlisted bonus track buried at the end of the album.

It adds up to an excellent, intriguing, sometimes inspiring pop album that deserves a much wider audience than it’s likely to receive. And while you’re at it… why not check out the recent re-issues of the classic Pulp albums? Start with Different Class, an album that deserves its status as a classic for the astonishing hit single “Common People” alone.

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