Jarvis Cocker isn’t sure if he’s old. “I mean I feel at the moment I’d like to say I’m still middle-aged,” he says on the phone from his home outside Sheffield at the tail end of lockdown. “But I’m probably not.” He laughs. “I’m probably going over the other end.”
The modishly handsome musician is now 56 and still best known for “Common People,” an alterna-hit by his former band Pulp that came in 1995, during the commercial peak of the UK’s embrace of “Cool Britannia” and Britpop. Considering that Cocker, like his chief influences Scott Walker and Leonard Cohen, has been exploring a lecherous, class conscious, existentialism in song all his life, he’s arguably less mortality fixated now than he was when he sang “Help The Aged” 22 years ago.
Anyway, current events have rendered the possibility of acting out a midlife crisis not only self-indulgent but downright impractical. So Cocker has spent his confined time with his girlfriend, spinning records on Instagram and working on his memoirs, as one does at a certain age regardless of onset apocalypse. He’s also been on the phone promoting his new band Jarv Is... and its new album Beyond the Pale. “Normally a record wouldn’t be released in the summer because everyone is on holiday,” he admits, “but this is a different kind of summer.”
One thing Jarvis Cocker wants to be clear about Jarv Is..., his first full “rock” band since Pulp’s split in 2002, is that the ellipsis after “Is” are important. They are not to be deleted.
“It’s Jarv Is dot dot dot,” he says. “It’s important that you have those three dots at the end because, while it wasn’t really intentional when I came up with the name, it implies something that isn’t quite finished.”
“I had these bits of songs or ideas of songs that had been lying around for varying amounts of time but it had never coalesced into something I was completely convinced by,” he continues. “And it was only by getting the band together and working on the songs together that they then started to develop. So when the group started it was an unfinished idea.”
The band name has caused its fair share of confusion with the streaming AI that can’t quite, no pun intended, connect the dots between the catalogue of Jarvis Cocker and Jarv Is... the band. Originally the name was simply going to be Jarv but Cocker’s manager warned the singer off. “He thought that was kind of too smug,” Cocker says, “and he was probably right.”
The songs on Beyond the Pale have the polish and commitment to groove that one would expect of a dance music acolyte like Cocker, in addition to the limber spontaneity of a live album. It’s also a decidedly collaborative effort, with plenty of backing vocals and call and response, a shift from the norm where Cocker’s voice is usually the only one heard on his songs.
As lively as it is, it would be trite to say that Jarvis Cocker sounds young again. For one, he’s been lucky or tastefully talented enough to have avoided the kind of missteps that push performers into over-the-hill status. His 2006 song “C**ts Are Still Running The World” is a true international anthem in the way “We Are The World” could only hope to be. Cocker also acquitted himself very well with his forays into electronic music (with electroclash act Relaxed Muscle) and piano balladeering (2017’s collaboration with composer Chilly Gonzales), two genres that can produce terrible results but Cocker’s efforts were decidedly un-embarrassing.
Secondly, the world has never really known Cocker as a young man. He was already in his 30s when “Common People” became a smash; the band was struggling to find fame for more than a decade at that point. After 1987’s Freaks, an album with a certain charm that Cocker insists is “beyond embarrassing”, the singer enrolled in film school. When asked if he’s ever thought whether it would be worse to have been the indie footnote that Pulp almost became or to never have even come close to succeeding at all Cocker says: “You know for a lot of my life, I thought that either of those scenarios were the most likely. By the time I left Sheffield to go to art college, I’d already been in the band for six or seven years. That’s a long time, especially when you’re young. I’d been convinced that I was going to be a pop star in my teens because we got asked to do a John Peel’s session whilst I was still in school and as far as I was concerned that was like you’ve died and gone to indie heaven.”
But after the mixed reception to Freaks, the band seemed to lose momentum. “I just thought, it shouldn’t be this painful,” he said. “For audiences and performer alike. That was it.”
In Cocker’s case, though, it was surrendering ambition that liberated him. He never officially disbanded Pulp and, whether it was letting go of pop anxiety, audiences catching up with Pulp’s scathingly horny character sketches, or, most likely, just Cocker’s improved songwriting, the band started to click. “It’s kind of like if you really want someone to date you,” he explains. “If you’re kind of really serious about it, and hang around outside their house, you probably will get a restraining order put on you,” Cocker says in retrospect of his early career thirst for fame. “It’s not the way. You need to be a bit more casual about it. It took me a long time to learn that.”
A nice thing about Jarv Is... is that the band conjures up the same energetic urbanity of Pulp’s most successful album, Different Class, without sounding like Cocker is trying to simply recreate it. There’s no bid for long-ago glory, just an adroit continuation of a knowing affection for youth culture. Songs like “House Music All Night Long,” with the lyrics “Saturday night, cabin fever in house nation/ This is one nation under a roof/ Ain’t that the truth/ Goddamn this claustrophobia/ ‘Cause I should be disrobing you” were written before the lockdown but now carry both a “Simpsons predicted everything” feel of prophecy and incisive analysis of a population yearning to make out with a stranger.
The song was actually written a couple years ago when Cocker was on his own in London, “kind of jealous of some friends who had gone to this dance music festival in Wales,” he says. “I started writing this song as a way to kind of pass the time and distract myself from my jealousy.” But the details of its genesis hardly matter. Pop music is a medium that historically renders intent utterly and blissfully irrelevant.
As Covid-19 has laid bare the barely existent social safety nets of both America and the UK, and as Jarvis Cocker has a decades-deep discography of picking at the scabs of class conflict, it doesn’t feel like a shoehorn to ask him about politics. While loathe to consider “Common People,” the new “Must I Evolve” or any number of his other songs as straight protest music, Cocker subscribes fully to the idea that we all live in the world and must respond accordingly.
“I generally think the powers that be don’t volunteer to give up their power,” he says. “That’s how they come to be the powers that be. So protest, and actions such as throwing statues into the river, and stuff like that ... I think it’s justified,” he says in explaining why he’s attended Black Lives Matter protests and didn’t cry when Edward Colston met the bottom of the Bristol Harbour. “I’m not saying let’s go burn everything down, but I am saying that it would be naive to think that it’s gonna get fixed internally.”
While not shying away from the larger forces that loom over our lives, Cocker’s focus has been and remains the underdog. Part of that is an overarching belief in the individual’s potential for dignity. “My contention is that everybody can be creative and everybody has got that creative spark in them,” he says, “and I think that’s something we saw during the lockdown.”
And part is just his own fascinations – prurient, prosaic and offhandedly profound. Hearing Scott Walker for the first time as a young man counts as one of his most life-changing moments. “He would write about quite recognisable, almost humdrum mundane everyday things like people living in apartments and getting irritated by the people making noise upstairs, but then with this very kind of widescreen cinematic orchestral backing,” Cocker says. Hearing observations like that gave him the permission to pursue what has become the primary thread that has served four decades of songwriting.
While the last few months forced an insularity on so many of our lives, examining that insularity is another thing entirely, a task best left to the brave or foolhardy. Jarvis Cocker has made a life’s work of it. “Finding your subject matter is probably the hardest part of any artist’s job,” he says. “Once you identify what it is you’re interested in, you can probably mine that and mine it and mine it for all it’s worth. And there’s something good about following something on and on because it’ll change throughout your life what you’ve got to say about it. Or what you discover about it.”
© The Washington Post
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