Pulp free

Jarvis Cocker’s still Jarvis Cocker on Jarvis
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  January 29, 2007

A PERFORMER as invested in irony, wit, and invective as Cocker is never going to be warm.

During the heyday of the Kinks, Ray Davies wrote with compassion about people in small towns clinging to a faded way of life. Since the ’90s, Jarvis Cocker has been both his opposite and his brother under the skin. Hailing from Sheffield in South Yorkshire, the city in which he founded Pulp in 1978 (at age 15) and led them till 2002, Cocker has always covered more urban territory than Davies. And his capacity for empathy has always been equaled by his talent for withering contempt. Put it this way: Davies may have loathed himself for wishing to be like David Watts; Cocker, sick of being made to feel envy for upper-class prats, wants Watts dead.

And yet Cocker’s lovingly nurtured sense of being an outsider, his fine-tuned sense of class hatred (see Pulp’s “Common People”), has been grounded in an unsentimental reckoning of what it means to live with defeat. Which is why, after Pulp finally achieved pop success with the 1996 album Different Class (reissued late last year as deluxe two-disc import by Universal), they followed it up with the bleak, bitter This Is Hardcore (also reissued last year), a dissection of failure.

Jarvis (Rough Trade UK), Cocker’s first solo disc, may be the richest work he’s done, and though it’s yet to get a proper US release, it’s the best pop album I’ve heard in the past year. It’s not that the scorn is gone — not with titles like “I Will Kill Again” and “From Auschwitz to Ipswich.” And not with the furious hidden track, “Ruling the World” (or, as it should be more accurately called, “Cunts Are Still Ruling the World”). And it isn’t just that here the compassion — as hard-edged as ever — flows more easily, as it does on the knockout opener, “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time,” and on the surprisingly touching closer, “Quantum Theory.”

What accounts, I think, for the emotional heft of Jarvis is that there seems to be less distance between the singer and his subjects. That’s relative, of course. A performer as invested in irony, wit, and invective as Cocker is never going to be exactly warm. “From Auschwitz to Ipswich” (a dangerously glib title) sees affluence and apathy as the things that will do us in. And the gleeful “Fat Children” is a fantasy of being mugged and murdered by marauding (or at least wobbling) bands of porker tots and then returning as a ghost to exact revenge.

But artists who see cruelty and deceit and envy and snobbishness and name it as such can make us feel that they are capable of being wounded by the same things we are. The oblique, gloomy “Big Julie,” the story of a lonely, oversized woman’s various humiliations, is preceded by Carson McCullers, in her thick, asthmatic voice, reading from The Member of the Wedding, a classic evocation of the outsider’s wish to belong. McCullers might be giving a benediction to this sad woman, and Cocker, who has always been able to get a hushed effect out of his own husky voice, delivers a delicate vocal that is its own form of compassion.

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Related: Pulp friction, Jarvis Cocker | Further Complications, Survival skills, More more >
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