Jarvis Cocker: “Further Complications”
At 2009’s SXSW music festival, one of the most high-profile, buzzed-about performers was really not a performer at all, so much as a guest lecturer– Jarvis Cocker, British tabloid sensation and pop star at large. Cocker didn’t perform on a big outdoor stage, but in an auditorium, where he spoke to festival-goers about the art and craft of writing pop songs– a fitting role for a man who, more and more, has come to take on a professorial role; he’s always had what might be described as an intellectual, even academic interest in the process of songwriting, of course, but, in recent years, as he has put Pulp on hiatus and eased into his role as one of rock’s elder statesmen, his music has largely abandoned the sense of provocation that made him a celebrity in the 90s, instead becoming more and more rooted in an ever-curious, wide-eyed sense of craftsmanship.
He has become, in short, a walking handbook of some of rock’s greatest traditions. In the first chapter, the celebrated pop star– now heading into middle age– disbanded his former ensemble and took his time making a leisurely, modest solo album; everything about The Jarvis Cocker Album, from its title to its washed-out artwork to the keen sense of songcraft, suggested a musician becoming comfortable on his own and settling into a relaxed groove. If you’re ever in a band and then decide to strike out on your own, take note: Cocker’s first solo album is a textbook example of how it’s done.
But then, there were Further Complications. Cocker, after touring with a regular, working band for a while, apparently had his zeal for full-time rock and roll renewed, and so he recorded a big batch of songs with his road band and producer Steve Albini, several of which went on to become his second album as a solo performer– though it’s as much a full-band record as anything he ever did with Pulp. Indeed, if Jarvis was the sound of a performer becoming comfortable playing his own songs by himself, Further Complications is where he falls madly in love with being a bandleader all over again: The sense of craft is still very much present, but working with a band has reinvigorated him. Not since Different Class has Jarvis sounded so genuinely excited by the act of making music with a full band, and, accordingly, Further Complications is an album rich in energy and excitement and sheer, giddy joy.
In fact, after the hilariously wry title song, Cocker dips into a couple of songs that jettison his usual dry wit, sounding like they were recorded solely as vehicles for his band. “Angela,” the first single, is a trashy, throwaway glam song featuring one of Cocker’s most cliched lyrics, but that’s the very point: He’s celebrating the music that he loves and relishing the opportunity to play with a band again. He sounds committed and energized, and his purposeful sense of craft is only made stronger because of it; listen to the joyful but subtle piano and tambourine refrains in the bridge. After that comes “Pilchard,” an odd instrumental number that’s literally just a platform for the band; accordingly, they blaze through it with bravado and aplomb.
The rest of the album increases the emphasis on Cocker’s words, but never dials down the intensity of the band. This is the record where the two sides of Jarvis Cocker meet in a nearly perfect union; his popstar charisma and his professorial intellect come together to create carefully-crafted updates of rock and roll traditions, then throw them all into a blender of feverish glee. “Homewrecker” channels a 1950s rock beat through Stooges ferocity (right down to the same sax player who played on Funhouse!), “Hold Still” is a glam ballad worthy of either T-Rex or Mott the Hoople, and the two big ballads feature soulful build-ups and drums that sound like they were recorded for an Al Green album.
Interestingly, the lyrics feel more personal than the ones on his last album, which in turn felt less intimate than his albums with Pulp; something about working with a band makes Cocker feel introspective, though of course he masks it all behind his caustic wit. As with any Jarvis recording, this one is full of sex songs, but they’re marked by his typical self-deprecation. Actually, what he does is tap into a particular neuroses that was previously reserved for Woody Allen and Larry David, deconstructing human relationships and personal insecurities with nuance and stinging humor. “Leftovers” is a sad but darkly funny song about looking for romance even as we realize how fast we’re aging, and the wordplay (“I met her at a museum of paleontology/ And I make no bones about it…”) and linguistic nuance make it sound like it could have fit on Different Class. “I Never Said I Was Deep” is both riotous and moving, a self-effacing bit in which the singer makes apology for all his shortcomings.
As with many great rock albums, Further Complications sometimes becomes music about music, as Cocker uses the tropes and the language of rock and roll for his own expressive purposes. Witness the clever irony of “Fuckingsong,” in which the singer draws comparisons between making music and making sex, trying desperately to convince himself that the two can be equally satisfying; it outdoes the entirety of emo in its angst and self-loathing, but it does it with Jarvis’ typical wit. And the closing number, an epic disco song titled, appropriately enough, “Discosong,” cleverly rehashes pop radio cliches into a surprisingly moving song of love and longing; the AM radio beat only adds to the lovelorn, time-ravaged feel.
Of course, the mere fact that Jarvis would end the album with an eight-minute disco song is itself telling, though it might say less about him than it does the influence of Albini and the inspiration he’s found in his band: Here, Cocker is taking chances again, stretching himself, allowing all of his interests and obsessions to find their way into his music. And because of that, Further Complications just might be the quintessential Jarvis Cocker record– a more personal testimony than Jarvis and an album that nearly equals Different Class in its individuality, its sense of personal expression married to artistic vision. Here the Professor is walking the walk, putting all his lessons in craft into actual practice, but he’s also showing that he’s still eager to learn, still hungry– and still as vital as ever.