You don't find the little café that sits at the bottom of Brookhouse Hill, on the outer reaches of Sheffield's town centre, without exerting a considerable amount of effort. First, you have to insist to the taxi driver who believes otherwise that, yes, it really does exist, and then, when you have reached the end of the deeply suburban road that appears to lead nowhere, you get out, pay the man, cross the road, squeeze through a gate, and head down a winding path until you get to a frigid lake whose few ducks look as if they wish they were elsewhere. It is the middle of April, British spring time. Consequently, it is freezing cold. It is also disquietingly misty round here. "Not misty," says Jarvis Cocker, Sheffield native and still proud of the place he left 20 years ago. "Atmospheric."
Anyway, we carry on around the lake, step through another gate directly into what is very likely the past, and then finally there it is: the café that sits at the bottom of Brookhouse Hill. Jarvis looks relieved. "See?" he says. It's like arriving at a little corner of 1950s England, a small, undeniably quaint, little hovel set into the hill itself, whose ancient Formica counter is littered with the kind of cakes you haven't been able to buy from your local supermarket for a good generation now.
Though he is dressed – quite deliberately, it transpires – like a 1970s geography teacher ("It's the look I'm most comfortable with. Why else do you think I have the beard?"), Jarvis seems entirely at home in this pocket of post-war nostalgia. He points out a chrome tap behind the counter upon which is written the legend HORLICKS. In deference to modernity, there is also a cappuccino machine alongside it, though it looks nothing like the cappuccino machine at Starbucks. When somebody comes in later and orders one, the sound it generates is that of a jumbo jet about to crash land.
We opt for tea and teacakes (total cost: mere shillings) and repair to a corner table where, over the next hour or so, we nearly freeze to death, central heating having yet to arrive at Brookhouse.
"Don't mock," he says. "This is a popular local hotspot, especially in the summer months. Families, dog walkers." And, presumably, former local pop stars? Jarvis arranges his face into what it was clearly chiefly constructed for – deadpan irony – and sort-of smiles. "I do like to visit when I'm back, yes," says the man who has spent the past few years living in Paris. "I always expect a ticker-tape parade in my honour. Hasn't happened yet, but then Sheffield isn't particularly a ticker-tape kind of place, is it?" The smile becomes less ambiguous. "Which is precisely why I like it, of course."
France will never entirely claim him, he insists, though he finds himself increasingly less enamoured with an England he believes is veering perhaps inevitably towards another period of Conservative rule.
"I was recently quoted," he begins with a heavy sigh, "as saying that a Conservative government is now necessary. What I meant, of course, was a necessary evil. It's not like we have much of a choice any more, is it?"
He had grown disillusioned with New Labour long ago, "but I had hoped Brown would have brought something to the party that Blair didn't." He smiles thinly. "He has certainly done that, but it can hardly be called an improvement. Gordon Brown is dull, crushingly so, and that's the very worst thing that can be said about anyone. Given what has happened to the economy this past year, I'd advocate an uprising, nothing short of a revolution. We should take to the streets in protest."
And would he be right there alongside us?
"If Eurostar services weren't disrupted as a result of it, then yes," he says. "Yes I would."
Jarvis Cocker, arguably the best, if most unlikely, pop star of the 1990s, is a middle-aged man these days. He is 45, and about to release his second solo album called, with a nod to all things midlife, Further Complications. He is cautiously optimistic about this record, which is more than can be said the last time he released a solo album. The Jarvis Cocker Record, released in 2006, was his first post-Pulp release, a record he never imagined he'd come to make at all as, back then, his head was filled with only one thought: retirement.
"I had recently turned 40 and I thought it was maybe time, you know, to make a dignified exit before things got embarrassing." He fusses with his heavy-framed glasses. "The last two Pulp albums were not happy experiences, and I didn't want to go through that kind of pain again. Plus, I was pretty much convinced I had said all I needed to say." "In music?" I ask. He laughs drily. "In everything."
Though he may wince at the cliché, Jarvis had reached an undeniable crossroads in life. His band was over, and he had recently met and married a French woman, stylist Camille Bidault Waddington, with whom he had a son (Albert, now six). When she expressed a desire to return to her native Paris to live, he thought, why not?
"I spent much of my younger days socialising as much as possible because I wasn't particularly comfortable with my own company," he says. "To suddenly be in Paris was a useful ... exercise to learn to, well, I hesitate to say love myself, but not fear myself quite so much. And also to ponder what to do next."
The man who had always been so capable of skewering life's key moments in song – everything from sexual awakening to drug overload to bitter disillusion – spent those early French days haplessly trying to pinpoint his strengths. This proved arduous.
"I came to the realisation that the ability to jiggle one's elbow while singing is not exactly a particularly transferable one. What could it possibly lead to? Life as a children's entertainer?"
He did briefly consider writing songs for other people, but though he went on to do just that – for, among others, Marianne Faithfull, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Nancy Sinatra – he decided that the emotional commitment songwriting required of him was too great to then give the songs away. Plus, he adds, "I learned that if I had any real skill at all, it was to put inappropriate subject matter into songs, and then sing them myself. And so I wrote my first album very much from the point of view of me, a post-40 isolated man, in my room, in Paris." Was there a lot of torment in it? He picks a raisin from his teacake and seems not quite to know what to do with it. "Possibly, yes."
Torment rears its head throughout Further Complications too. In fact, if the musical vigour and lyrical confusion that permeates much of the record suggests a man in emotional turmoil, then there is good reason for it. Though he refuses to address the topic in conversation (it is too private, too painful, something to sidestep with a dip of the head and a wave of nervous fingers), Jarvis recently split from his wife, though they remain, a spokesman later suggests, "amicable". He continues to live in Paris in order to be close to his son, but his life, much like the record, throbs with the urgency of having gone through the emotional wringer only to now have to start everything all over again – at the age of 45.
"I was DJing at this terribly chic Parisian nightclub the other night, Regine's," he says. "I really enjoyed myself, as it happens, but a few years ago, I used to look at older people who bothered to still attend nightclubs and couldn't help but wonder why. Didn't they realise how foolish they looked? Of course, now that I'm one of those people myself, I have decided that such rules don't apply to me." He laughs at himself here, then stresses that part of accepting middle-age is to no longer care what anyone else thinks.
"But middle age is confusing. I used to think that one day I would reach a stage in life where everything would finally make sense, everything would fall into its rightful place and I'd start enjoying myself," he says when I ask him about the album's wonderfully grumpy title track. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I'm not enjoying myself right now but that, basically ... Well, that's why they invented the concept of heaven in the first place, isn't it? To look forward to getting to a place where, ultimately, we will all be happy all the time. It certainly doesn't exist in real life."
He says that he still finds himself improvising in everything, expert at nothing: "And when you have children, things just get even more complicated. They ask awkward questions. I wish I knew the answers."
One song on the album, called "Leftovers", concerns a fortysomething man who still wants to run rampant around town, cock of his very own walk. "He had anticipated," Jarvis says, "that he would by now have grown out of sexual desire in favour of simply giving out sweets to small children, but instead the leftovers of desire continue to plague him." "Fuckingsong" – Jarvis always did have a way with an eye-catching title – does what it says on the tin, while "I Never Said I Was Deep" is a biting exercise in self-abasement: "My lack of knowledge is vast," he sings, "and my horizons are narrow".
"When you first start a band as a teenager, you can't help but think of yourself as terribly deep and that you will, in some profound way, bring about a change in the world through your own creativity. I certainly did. But the more time has gone on, the more I've realised that I'm not deep at all. I am, in fact, profoundly shallow. Oh well."
The ironic smile that comes with this speech means that you cannot be entirely sure whether he means it, but perhaps he does because it never quite reaches his eyes. Behind him, the cappuccino machine erupts into terrifying life. He looks relieved by the interruption.
Jarvis Cocker spent his entire Sheffield upbringing dreaming of becoming a pop star. Shortsighted and gawky, he was the archetypal kid at school who was no good at sport and never got the girl. Instead, he would observe her from afar – or, in the case of one particular girl he would go on to write about (in 1992's "Babies"), from the vantage point of the wardrobe in her bedroom. He was obsessed with Scott Walker, an odd choice for someone who claimed to crave stardom – Walker hated fame – but an oddly prophetic one. He formed Pulp in 1978 at the age of 15, and his band would go through countless line-up changes over the next decade. Though no one out of Sheffield knew of their existence, Pulp nevertheless built up a small but loyal local following, Jarvis already worthy of idolatry to some. There is a wonderful story, possibly apocryphal, hopefully not, that during an attempt to woo a girl – inexpertly, as was his way – he fell out of a second-storey window and spent the next six months in a wheelchair. Fans would turn up to subsequent Pulp shows in wheelchairs themselves, in honour of the seated frontman.
By 1988, he had moved to London to study film at Saint Martin's. Much of the band came with him, and four years later, things started to happen for them. Pulp songs were by now wonderfully sparkly affairs, full of supersonic melody, each emboldened by Jarvis's darkly funny, observational lyrics that would soon get him hailed the Alan Bennett of pop. They fell into Britpop almost by accident, but were undeniably buoyed along by it, and by 1995, the year of "Common People", they were headlining Glastonbury. A year later, at the Brit Awards, Jarvis took umbrage at a Michael Jackson performance that required a bunch of children to worship Jacko as if he were the Second Coming. Jarvis stormed the stage and showed his anger as only he could: by wiggling his bottom. The next day, he was the most famous pop star in the country.
His biggest dream had come improbably true. Jarvis Cocker was a celebrity. But, just like his idol Scott Walker, he came quickly to loathe it. 1998's This Is Hardcore was a breathtakingly depressing record, informed by drugs and self-loathing, that achieved precisely what its creator hoped for: it cut his mainstream fanbase in half. Pulp would not recover from this, and after limping through 2001's We Love Life, they called it a day.
"Did I expect to hate success as much as I did?" he repeats, fiddling with his glasses again. "No, not at all. I hated that I hated it so much. I should have been having the time of my life, and I couldn't understand why I wasn't. Trouble was, I was always happiest being on the outside watching in. To suddenly become the centre of everything didn't suit me at all."
He refers to his old band as "a noble enterprise", but if he doesn't miss Pulp, it's with good reason. Unlike many frontmen, who fade from view once their band have had their time in the sun, Jarvis went on to straddle various sectors of the media with gloriously awkward aplomb, becoming something of a national treasure.
Last September, the former reluctant pop star received an invitation out of the blue. He was invited to spend 10 days on a boat sailing to the North Pole in the company of 39 other creative types – musicians, writers, filmmakers – to help highlight global warming. The organisers hoped that their guests would not only assimilate the very real fears of the destruction of our planet but also perhaps allow it to inform some of their subsequent art. Jarvis ended up writing a song called "Slush". It appears on the new album.
"I guess, tangentially, it does relate to global warming," he says, suddenly wary that by talking of saving the planet he'll be dubbed an indie Sting, "because slush is what snow turns into, and nobody likes that. Presumably, then, nobody would want the North Pole to turn into a dirty great lump of the stuff either, right?"
A couple of months later, he was invited to guest edit an edition of Radio 4's Today programme, which he loved: "I got to meet Tony Benn!" He has since been inundated with offers. He has given lecture tours on the art of songwriting, curated the South Bank Meltdown festival, and is currently in talks with the BBC to help create a series of programmes about the north of Britain.
"I'm not really sure why I get asked to do these things, to be honest, but I'm glad I am. It helps keep the brain ticking over. It doesn't mean I'm some kind of Renaissance man, though," he adds, now using both hands to straighten the glasses that were perfectly straight all a long. "I can't simply turn my hand to anything. I'm all too aware of my limitations. I've just learnt how to work within them, that's all."
'Further Complications' is released by Rough Trade on 18 MayReuse content