Pop music: Heaven knows he's miserable now

Fame has done nothing to counter Jarvis Cocker's pessimism and lack of self-esteem. In fact it's made it worse.
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The posters are already up and next week the album will be out. After a three-year absence there is a new album from Pulp, and new lyrics from Britpop's wittiest, most miserable and most introspective songwriter, Jarvis Cocker.

But hang on a minute. Take another look at that poster, that album cover: the torso of a naked blonde, pendulous breasts, face down on a bedspread as red as her lipstick as she stares vacantly and submissively. The album title This Is Hardcore is superimposed over her; and it seems accurate.

At first sight this looks as if Liam Gallagher has designed the cover. Cocker up until now has been anything but laddish. His one apparent episode of loutishness - getting arrested for interrupting Michael Jackson's pseudo- messianic stage act at the Brits - turned out to be an impulsive and sincere protest at overblown pomp. Brit organisers who shielded him from Jackson's furious minders will testify to how bewildered he was.

Cocker, gawky and bespectacled, partly owes his success both in his music and in his fan appeal to his honesty about lack of sexual conquests (he was into his twenties before he lost his virginity) and about the stultifying nature of some aspects of provincial, working class life.

He formed Pulp while still at school in Sheffield, he says, "so that girls would like me, because I had glasses and bad teeth, and wasn't any good at sports". He once jumped out of a window to impress a woman and spent the next year in a wheelchair. (It should be noted though that there's showbiz instinct in the tortured soul. He incorporated the wheelchair into the stage act, using it as a prop long after his legs had healed.)

His best song to date is a nineties anthem called "Common People". The laconic narrative tells of his seduction by a wealthy Greek student who wants to live like common people and sleep "with common people like you". Cocker explodes at her and spits out in a rousing chorus that the reality of people who have no money is "they watch their life slide out of view/ And dance and sing and screw / because there's nothing else to do."

That song has been acknowledged as setting Cocker apart from the rest of the Britpop bands with their idealisation of working class life. The excellent new album, well worth the wait for its intricacy, haunting arrangements and disturbing lyrics, sets him even further apart.

The nature of fame for Jarvis Cocker turns out to have proved just as traumatic as the lack of a girlfriend and an orthodontist. It is a source of fear and nausea. The memorable opening track is actually called "The Fear", a slowly climaxing anthem to paranoia - "This is the sound of someone losing the plot... / When you can't even define what it is that you are frightened of."

But it is the epic, intense and brooding central track "This Is Hardcore" that sets the intellectual tone. It is an account of an erotic relationship that leaves the narrator asking "what now?" once he has fulfilled his fantasies. "This is the eye of the storm / It's what men in stained raincoats pay for but in here it is pure... / That goes in there then that goes in there/ What a hell of a show, but what I want to know/ What exactly do you do for an encore?"

Cocker himself explains: "Hardcore is about fame. I ended up watching a lot of porn on tour. If you get back to the hotel and you've got nothing to do, you put the adult channel on and have a look. It's the way people get used up in it. You'd see the same people in films, and they'd seem to be quite alive, and then you'd see a film from a year later and there's something gone in their eyes. You can see it, they've done it all and there's nowhere else to go. There seemed to be something really poignant about that to me. It seemed to be very similar to the way people get used up in the entertainment business."

Not least himself. Fame has proved illusory for the boy with the bad teeth from Sheffield, and now his worries about girls have simply progressed to worries about being used up. Perhaps there is a personal sense of foreboding in "Help The Aged", the song on the album which urges us to take ageing relatives out of homes because "one time they were just like you, drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue." Whatever fame has given Jarvis it doesn't appear to be hope, contentment or self esteem.

Fame is watching porn movies and seeing the same characters with "something gone in their eyes". Jarvis Cocker must be the only person who watches the Adult Channel and studies the porn stars' eyes. But like them he expected more. He seems unable to find a middle way of warmth and fulfilment between the overblown artifice of Michael Jackson and the icy, soul destroying sex of the one-night standers, and so in the chorus of "The Fear", "here comes another panic attack".

In the closing track, "The Day After The Revolution", his pessimism about his own persona and loveless sex, becomes all embracing. It reaches the caustic conclusion "The meek shall inherit nothing at all."

One should never overstate the potential of a song lyric to be poetry, let alone therapy. And Cocker himself seems to realise this, adding the unusual instruction on the cover: "NB Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the music." Analysis should not get in the way of a good tune, or in the case of this album, Pulp's lush melodic arrangements - Cocker may be unique in his marriage of bleak nihilism and lush backings. This album, though, has a heavier reliance than formerly on loops and samples, guitar and vocal distortion, lending the songs a cold and sterile quality. This is an album that is intense, disturbing and hugely accomplished - like its creator.

The wit and wisdom of Jarvis Cocker

It was very quick, we both felt dirty and ashamed - the way it should be.

On losing his virginity

It's up there now like a voodoo doll or something ... a semi-Dorian Gray thing. Except the other way round. I'm the one who's getting more twisted and messed up, and the dummy can stay untouched. On the waxwork dummy of himself in London's Rock Circus

The situation I have been in is like watching a film, seeing what's on the screen and then suddenly being inside it, being part of the film. To be honest I think it's better to be in the audience.

On fame

You become aware of things you'd never thought of - the way you walk, the way you hold yourself, the shape of your face when you're talking. It's like there's two of you... there's another version of yourself out there, and people know that one better than they know you.

On seeing himself impersonated on "Stars in their Eyes"

I was the Pol Pot of the crab world.

On life before Pulp, when he worked washing and boiling crabs in a fish market

You have to spend a lot of time indoors because you get

hassled so much, and then your brain turns inward.

On the penalties of fame.

For me to write "Yes I saw her in the chip shop / And I said get yer top off" or something would be pathetic, because I haven't been in a chippy for ages. The things worth writing about remain the same through the ages. Love. And sex. And what else? Death.

On songwriting

I don't want really want it engraved on my tombstone that I was the person who wiggled his arse at Michael Jackson.

On his behaviour at the 1996 Brit awards ceremony

All I was trying to do was make a point and do something that lots of other people would have loved to do... I thought it was in bad taste to have kids on stage, given the allegations against him.

His defence

I hate Wet Wet Wet.

Handwritten legend on poster he held up on "Top of the Pops"

The best way to describe their music is "castrated soul".

Why he hates Wet Wet Wet

They can always go to the Rock Circus and look at that dummy.

On fans who prefer the old, cheerful Jarvis

The Cocker fact file

19.9.63 born in Sheffield

1979 The 16-year-old Cocker forms Pulp

1980 Pulp perform their first gig, in Sheffield

1985 Falls from a third-floor window trying to impress a girl. Breaks both legs and pelvis and spends a year in a wheelchair

March 94 Pulp release first "breakthrough" single - "Do You Remember the First Time"

April 94 His 'n' Hers album released.

June 95 Single "Common People" reaches No 2. Pulp go on to have two more top 10 singes in '95 and a No 1 album - Different Class

Jan 1996 Pulp are nominated for four Brit awards, including Best Album and Best Single

Feb 96 Disrupts Michael Jackson's performance of the "Earth Song" at the Brit awards. Is later arrested following allegations by Jackson that he assaulted three children. The charges were dropped and Cocker demanded an apology.

May 96 Turns out for a charity football match alongside Damon Albarn and Liam Gallagher. His performance was regarded as committed. For want of a better word.

August 96 Pulp steal the show with a spectacular display at the V96 festival in Chelmsford.

Mar 97 The Bee Gees refuse to receive their Brit Award from Cocker due to objections over his treatment of their friend, Jackson.

Dec 97 Voted "Worst Dressed Star" by Sun readers.

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