It’s no secret that Jarvis Cocker sees himself as an outsider. But sometime around 2003 it got so bad he quit the country. With Pulp over, a war in Iraq getting nastier by the day and a wife and kid to worry about, more than ever, Jarvis had had enough. And with Pulp’s Greatest Hits limping into the charts at Number 71, it seems people had had enough of Jarvis.
So over the last couple of years Jarvis has been scrutinising Britain from over the Channel in France. Absence, it’s safe to say, has not made his heart grow fonder. Judging by ‘Jarvis’, he has been sickened by what he’s observed. However, the good news is that this time in exile, this thoughtful distance and Jarvis’ mounting anger have combined to produce his best collection of songs since ‘Different Class’.
The clues have been there all year. Without warning he made his bid for Track Of The Year by leaking ‘(Cunts Are Still) Running The World’, via his MySpace page on the anniversary of Live8. The world pricked up its ears. But it was his recent NME address that reconfirmed Jarvis as a figurehead; a pop star personification of Britain’s losers, refuseniks and malcontents, and an inspiration to a whole new generation of similarly individual bands such as The Long Blondes, The Young Knives and Maximo Park. It’s a joy to see that, despite knocking towards his mid-40s, he’s as funny, self-deprecating and opinionated as ever.
But despite all this, if you think NME is building up to some falsetto declaration of ‘Jarvis’ as the Album Of The Year, you’re wrong. We’re very sorry.
The (right-thinking) world may be reinvigorated by the return of Jarvis, but this is not necessarily the album they will have wanted him to make. Pop tunes – whip-smart tracks that would propel this Bri-nylon saboteur back up the charts – are notable by their absence. Indeed, after the upbeat opening of ‘Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time’ (as heard on Nancy Sinatra’s recent album), ‘Black Magic’ and ‘Heavy Weather’, ‘Jarvis’ is a pretty difficult listen.
On the one hand, his new sound is relaxed, singer-songwriterly, countryish, with piano and Richard Hawley’s trademark guitar to the fore. But, equally, it is all about odd arrangements and atmospheric interruptions of strings and spectral choirs. There are lyrics here which, for all their bitter tang, are completely hilarious. The funniest you will hear this year. But the music is often mysterious and full of subtleties. Like his hero Scott Walker’s early, darkly humorous solo albums, you need to listen to ‘Jarvis’ loudly and repeatedly, before a track like ‘Quantum Theory’ makes sense.
Viewing the old country from Paris, Jarvis may well wonder whether any of us will make the effort, whether we’re still capable of such commitment. For the central, compelling theme of this record is his utter disgust at modern Britain’s cultural and political stagnation.
‘Running The World’, bizarrely tacked on as a hidden track, sets the tone. Despite being inspired by a G8 summit, lyrically it seems more concerned with New Labour and how – in collusion with the newly swollen middle classes – they have cynically abandoned Britain’s poor. Which is true. Although, who else out there but Jarvis would say it? You can take the boy out of the Socialist Republic Of South Yorkshire, but you can’t take the anger and compassion out of the boy.
And, make no mistake, Jarvis is angry; whether it’s at Disney (the winningly gloomy, spooky ‘Disney Time’) or the supine British population. On ‘I Will Kill Again’, a disarmingly lovely piano ballad, Jarvis basically threatens to murder (OK, I’m extrapolating here, but not a lot) every 2.4-children, Barratt Home-dwelling, Zoo-reading, Pinot Grigio-swilling, James Blunt-buying, Ford Focus-driving man in the country.
“Ha ha! Hilarious,” you think. As is, ‘From A To I’, which predicts the downfall of Western civilisation. But, be sure, at the basic level, before Jarvis Cocker glosses his thoughts with comic exaggerations and murder fantasies, he means it, man.
For all the power of those four songs, however, ‘Jarvis’ never quite gathers an irresistible momentum like his past glories did. There isn’t a bad song on here, but there are several which don’t fulfil their full potential. ‘Jarvis’ was recorded in 13 days and, at times, it sounds like it. The ’50s-style ‘Tonite’ is well-turned but inconsequential, while ‘Fat Children’ is a basic, rather blasé punk thrash. Saddest of all, ‘Big Julie’, a well-observed, string-swaddled mini-epic, builds and builds and constantly threatens to blossom into a huge show-stopping crescendo, but never quite does.
A good record, then, not a classic. But is that such a surprise? From ‘Sorted For E’s & Wizz’ to Relaxed Muscle, Jarvis has made records which capture moments in time. He doesn’t write with ‘classic album’ polls of 2017 in mind. It is his job to produce timely records, which speak to us here and now, and ‘Jarvis’ does that. It is a damning report on modern Britain and a satisfyingly complex musical knot. Thank God he’s back, eh? The outsider has returned. Just in the nick of time.