Since I was about 18 years old, I can honestly say that I have compared every man I dated to Jarvis Cocker. I have every one of the LPs by Pulp, the band he started as a precocious 15 years old. I have his solo albums. I remember going to see him on the first tour he did without Pulp. It was at the Fillmore in San Francisco. I was floored; even after two decades of working in the music industry, he had completely dazzled me, making me feel just as excited about art and music as I had when I first had encountered him as a teenager.
At that time — early 1990s — he was the thinking person’s rock star: a tall, gangly weirdo with glasses and shaggy hair standing at the front of a stage, singing these simultaneously smart, dark and often double entendre songs. I was a tall, gangly weirdo who wore glasses and also had unruly hair (though outside of a brush with playing the flute in junior high school, no musical ability whatsoever). He also had a British accent, which, if you don’t live in the UK, can instantly ramp up someone’s attractiveness (now, having been in the UK for a decade, I do not even hear it, much to my husband’s chagrin).
Jarvis never took himself too seriously, which only added to his appeal. Fast forward to a couple years ago, I am in the British Library being interviewed for the BBC; I do not have my aforementioned glasses on. A figure starts walking towards me. I stage whisper to the journalist, “OMG! IS THAT JARVIS COCKER? DON’T TURN AROUND!”
He immediately turns around, just as the person in question came up to us. It was Jarvis Cocker. I gasped audibly like a teenager glimpsing Harry Styles in the flesh, too starstruck to move. It was not my finest moment. Nor was it when I found out that one of my colleagues, Andrew McKinney, is in JARV IS, Cocker’s new project, playing bass and providing back-up vocals. Andrew casually told me this as I was making a coffee in our staff lounge. I screamed, “OH MY GOD!!!!,” the realization that I was just one degree of separation, Kevin Bacon-style, from my hero barely able to register.
I have been counting down until July 17, when I can hold the full-length LP release of the forthcoming JARV IS project, Beyond the Pale, in my waiting, anglophile, ex-pat hands. Until then, it seemed appropriate to share a list of some Jarvis Cocker highlights and make sure we are all prepped and primed for the momentous event.
Unlike other teenage debuts, which can be rough and ready, Pulp’s first go at an LP already sounds fully formed, wall-to-wall with songs of lust, longing, and need. Once you hear “My Lighthouse,” you will have it on constant repeat. Perfectly capturing the universal experience of love lost, “Wishful Thinking” will bring you immediately back to drinking cheap wine and smoking clove cigarettes in a darkened room (or maybe that was just me?).
The follow-up to It is really 1987’s Freaks. The album is much darker than It and saw little financial success. Until it was remastered in 2012, it was notoriously hard to find, though the song “Master of the Universe” with lyrics such as “The master masturbates alone / in a corner of your home” makes it worthy of picking up any copy you can get your paws on it.
Separations showcases an entirely different side of Pulp, with hints of electro dance-pop moving in and gelling with Jarvis’ signature unrelenting critique on society. It also contains one of the band’s best songs, the incredibly underrated “My Legendary Girlfriend.” The frenzied drum loops, punctuated with hints of ambient noises, bombard you, as Cocker whisper-sings the lyrics for the first two and a half minutes of the almost seven-minute song. Cocker’s words paint such a vivid picture of place and space, making even the mundane seem both incredibly romantic and doomed:
“You know sometimes when we’re lying together
And I know you’re asleep
I can hear the soft sound of your breathing so I get up
And I go to the window
Outside I can see all the houses
Curtains shut tight against the night asleep beneath the roof-tiles …”
He builds to a massive crescendo, finally busting out in full range with the question we have all had: “I just wanna know what it means …”
The classic combo plate of longing and melancholy may not have been created by Cocker, but- — just like Reese’s peanut butter cups — he makes the two elements work so perfectly together, they may as well be his and his alone. Separations shows Cocker flexing his genius of infusing lyrics with VR realism, setting the tone for the following momentous records that would change the trajectory of the entire British soundscape.
The band put out Intro: The Gift Recordings in 1993, which is really for the hardcore fans. It has alternative versions of a couple of the songs from His ‘N’ Hers as well as some spoken word pieces, including a track featuring one of the only times keyboardist Candida Doyle can be heard across the entire Pulp catalogue. His N Hers, however, is an example of the now near-extinct archetype: a record that tells a story, song by song, where the “album” tracks are just as mesmerizing and memorable as the singles. Kicking off with the perfectly named “Joyriders,” the LP takes you on a musical nostalgic trip. The opening keyboard riffs of the second track, “Lipgloss” have a psychedelic, frenetic feeling, priming the listener for the barren frostiness of “Acrylic Afternoon” and the smooth, almost swing style of “Have You Seen Her Lately?”
However, it is on bombastic singles “Babies” and “Do You Remember The First Time?” that Cocker gets to once again show off his ability to create an infectious dance song while illustrating unparalleled storytelling chops. The details of blossoming adolescent sexuality may have never been more astutely captured than in these two tracks. In “Babies,” every line, from the very start, paints such a relatable picture of awkward teenagerism, it would be easy to argue Cocker is the musical equivalent to movie maestro John Hughes. Just substitute your own street, your own childhood friends, and this song could be about any of us, the titillation from those early years often long forgotten:
“Well, it happened years ago,
When you lived on Stanhope Road.
We listened to your sister,
When she came home from school,
’cause she was two years older,
And she had boys in her room.
We listened outside and heard her.”
Similarly, “Do You Remember The First Time?” lays bare the uncertainty and real fear inherent in those early encounters. The most gutting part, though, is the way that Cocker is able to capture what can only be called “the high school reunion” vibe, that sick feeling that there will always be that part of all of us who is always unsure, and possibly covers it up with faux bravado: “… You know that we’ve changed so much since then; Oh yeah, we’ve grown.”
Building on their already impressive catalog, this is the record that (finally) launched Pulp into international stardom. Entering the UK charts at No. 1, Different Class won over fans and critics alike, with NME ranking it No. 6 out of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2013. Classic themes of sexuality and class — combined with the unflinching lyrics of Cocker — allow the LP to sound contemporary today, more than 20 years after it was released at the height of the Brit-pop frenzy. Winning the Mercury Prize, the record is back to back idiosyncratic hits and quirky tracks, including such stand out classics as “Disco 2000,” “Sorted for E’s & Wizz,” “Pencil Skirt,” and the frighteningly timely “Common People.”
Everything on this record, from the glossy Peter Saville-designed cover to the production on the tracks, just seems more polished, more put-together than previous Pulp albums. Once again, journalists and record buyers agreed on the brilliance of the LP, seeing it reach No. 1 on the UK charts and be nominated for a Mercury Prize. While single “Party Hard” has the same level of dance floor filling appeal as previous Pulp jams, for me it lacks the urgency of its predecessors. Similarly, the title track, “This Is Hardcore,” is a schmaltzy horn-heavy mid-tempo number, best played while serving vintage cocktails. I like This Is Hardcore, but for me, it did not quite match the brilliance of its predecessors.
You never know what to expect when a front person goes rogue. However, Jarvis did not disappoint. In fact, from the big-band brilliance of “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time” to the do-wop goodness of “Tonite” to the almost Strokes-like rocker “Fat Children” and the once again of-the-moment “Ruling the World,” Cocker proved on this first solo venture why he is literally a living legend who can poke fun at himself while still providing glaring truisms of the many foibles inherent in this imperfect world.
If you are looking for a record bringing together the best of Cocker’s ability to do four to the floor fillers with barbed observations of society — as well as himself — Beyond the Pale is an essential album. The critique of “Must I Evolve?” sees Cocker confronting his own mortality while still not being “satisfied” with the miracle of existence; “House Music All Night Long” is typical Jarvis-styled romantic tune, “a straightforward love song” centered around “someone stuck alone in the house whilst the object of their affections is out dancing to House music at a rave; and “Save the Whale” is pure classic Cocker, his lyrics acting as a magnifying glass to self-centered culture, with couplets like “Take your foot off the gas; Because it’s all downhill from here,” providing a bleak outlook for the ever-closer future.