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Jarvis Cocker - Jarvis Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 April 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    6
sound:    7
release year:    2007
label:    Rough Trade
reviewed by:    Dan MacIntosh

ImageJarvis Cocker was pop music’s favorite sex addict back when he fronted Pulp, his British band of 25 years. Mind you, he was never one of those distasteful perverts captured by To Catch a Predator each week. More like a musical version of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. He just loved heterosexual sex. A lot. And for the right reasons. I guess you could say he was like most other red-blooded males, just much more outspoken about his sexual urges. The Penthouse Forum put to music. “When you raise your pencil skirt like a veil before my eyes …” he once sang breathlessly. Barry White could have called him a brother from another mother, from another continent. Oh, to be a fly on the wall if White, Teddy Pendergrass and Cocker ever met to talk shop. But whereas White and Pendergrass made music to have sex to, Cocker’s Pulp songs mostly fueled the listener’s lurid imagination. He was the teen boy who never grew up, not a bedroom soundtrack.

Cocker is a solo artist now, and the simply titled Jarvis is his first major solo release. He is also a married father, living in France with his French wife. And this newfound domesticity indelibly colors his latest songs.

“I’m feeling so much better/Since I learned to avert my eyes/Now it’s Disney time,” goes the chorus to “Disney Time.” And then the first verse, obviously bathed in Cocker’s sardonic wit, asks: “How come they’re called adult movies/When the only thing they show/Is people making babies/Filmed up close?” It's hard to imagine the man covering his eyes every time a naked hottie struts across the movie screen, but these words offer a distinctly matter-of-fact view of cinematic sexuality, one without even the hint of voyeurism. It distinctly contrasts with that boy/man watching a girl lift her dress during Pulp’s pencil skirt days. “Disney Time” is not strictly about sex (or lack thereof) in movies, however, but about closing your eyes to the evil world outside and pretending all the bad stuff doesn’t exist. “You can tell your children/That everything's gonna be just fine/Here in Disney time,” Cocker lies. It may be necessary for parents to shield their children from life’s cruelty, at least long enough for them to experience a relatively innocent childhood, but Cocker isn’t speaking to, or about, children; he’s admonishing childish, willfully ignorant adults.
Cocker will never blindfold himself and sing the “Happy Happy, Joy Joy” song. He can clearly distinguish the phony Disney movie world from real life. Proving Cocker’s philosophical engagement, “Quantum Theory” closes the disc by stating Cocker’s oddball utopian vision. This song ends with the repeated line, “Everything is gonna be alright,” after Cocker has described a better world in a “parallel dimension.” His dream mixes weak hope with sarcastic humor. “Somewhere everyone is happy/Somewhere fish do not have bones.” All he wants is inner peace and a little more dinner convenience.

Musically, this work is all over the map. Maps should give a sense of direction and order, but Jarvis is mainly an aural montage of scattered local hotspots. Cocker’s favorite new hangout appears to be wherever his ear is close to ‘60s radio tunes. “Black Magic” unabashedly borrows Tommy James’ “Crimson & Clover,” nearly to the point of plagiarism, while “Heavy Weather” nips Roger McGuinn’s jangly, Byrds-y Rickenbacker guitar sound. “Baby’s Coming Back to Me” even mocks the sometimes mindless lyrical optimism of ‘60s pop songs: "The sun is shining/Oh and peace broke out in the world/And no one says a cruel word/And peace is the sweetest sound I've ever heard/And baby's coming back to me."

Sam & Dave once sang, “When something is wrong with my baby/Something is wrong with me.” It is difficult to feel right about the world when everything is wrong with your love life. But conversely, a healed relationship does not have any positive domino effect upon world politics. Your baby may be back but that don’t pay the bills, or make terrorists lay down their arms. Much of pop music is egocentrism gone awry, which means this it’s-all-good approach to true love is sometimes like watching “Disney Time” through rose-colored glasses. A make-believe world of wishful thinking, where romance is a fix-everything elixir. Putting the needle on that record is like going to Disneyland and completely suspending disbelief.

So far, I’ve made Cocker come off like a gloommeister, right? He’s not living in domestic bliss, that’s for sure. But “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time” skillfully brings out the man’s witty observational humor. “'Cause the years fly by in an instant/And you wonder what he's waiting for/Oh, then some skinny bitch walks by in some hot pants/And he's a-running out the door.”

Cocker sells the song by singing it in Michael Caine’s British “Alfie” accent. Maybe this embellished Cockney voice is very intentional, because Caine portrayed a serial “bird” chaser in that film; a waste of dating time for any woman in search of a serious relationship. The Pulp Cocker acted a lot like Caine’s character back before his wedded days, so maybe he’s warning this particular bird about guys like the old him.

This album’s best character study is “Big Julie,” where Cocker gets inside the head of a woman too big, both physically and mentally, for her tiny “sad town.” In it, a radio song magically transports Julie beyond her meaningless life and “away from these sweaty lads.” Each man in town sounds like every male character in “Thelma & Louise.” “And if it's not them then it's their dads/Like the guy who felt her up in class/And the Sunday school teacher who said she had beautiful breasts/And the local radio DJ who is so obviously obsessed.”

Then, in an unexpected turn of events, Cocker transforms this full-figured lady’s depressing existence into a minor feminist manifesto. “Yeah, form an orderly queue/when Big Julie rules the world.” His benevolent portrait of Julie makes you want to shout, “You go, girl!”

When Jarvis is hitting on all cylinders, as it does with “Big Julie” and a few others, Cocker comes off like a pop music genius. But that is only about half the time, because too many well-intended Jarvis songs go nowhere. “Black Magic,” for example, is a good lyrical idea, but half-baked. Through it, Cocker tries to make a Satanic practice sound like a wholesomely positive thing, and fails. Its lyric contains no compelling drama to draw you in. Cocker’s voice is dramatic, but he’s not saying anything memorable with it. (“Nothing comes close and nothing can compare/To black magic/Yeah yeah yeah.”) And while “Fat Children” stands out for its punkish musical backdrop, Cocker then falls short at matching its musical spirit with a convincing social message. He recounts the story of some young thugs who kill him; then he comes back as a ghost to haunt them. But what is he trying to tell us? That spoiled and overfed youths will get theirs in the end, even if it takes a spirit from the great beyond to deal out justice? If this is so, trying to tame wild children is hopeless. Nevertheless, even within this conceptual misfire, Cocker still gets in a few memorable zingers. “Oh, the parents are the problem/Giving birth to maggots /Without the sense to become flies/So pander to your pampered little princess/Of such enormous size.”

While with Pulp, when Cocker was obsessively lurking around the bedrooms of his imagination, he was like a naughty detective. We’d follow him anywhere. Besides, we didn’t really believe it was actually him doing the deeds because he was only playing a character, the same way Randy Newman once inhabited the polluted head space of Southern buffoons. But Cocker doesn’t hold the same attraction to us now that he’s just being himself. When he describes the way stormy weather reminds him of a past girlfriend during “Heavy Weather,” he also bores us to raindrop-sized tears. And while he’s philosophizing about the future world during “Quantum Theory,” he’s about as engaging as Einstein singing his scientific findings while imitating Leonard Cohen with an acoustic guitar – bland on both the ears and the mind.

Cocker’s current situation is comparable to Woody Allen’s career arc. Once Allen started getting serious, fans whined that his films were better back when he was just being funny. I’m not sure if Woody Allen has won back all his old fans, just as it’s hard to say if Pulp fanatics will follow Jarvis Cocker into his uncharted cynical and serious-minded middle age. Cocker’s prospects might have been brighter had he waited to record nine other winners like “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time,” “Disney Time” and “Big Julie” before committing to the studio time. Or to put it in a more bluntly Pulpy way, Cocker wasn’t aroused enough to penetrate this project all on his own.

If the most outstanding sonic on any album is a recorded sample, it spells trouble. Tommy James’ “Crimson & Clover” makes the track “Black Magic” jump right out of the speakers with its glam guitars and girly chorus. But that’s not magic, that’s an obvious steal. The sound on Jarvis is bigger and bolder than Pulp’s cheesy keyboards and weak production. But all the studio sheen in the world cannot rescue a lame song like “Heavy Weather,” for example, no matter how hard Cocker tries. It merely amounts to misspent enthusiasm.

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