Jarvis Cocker – Jarvis

There are such high expectations for Jarvis Cocker’s debut solo album. Here is the obsessively compulsive (or compulsively obsessive) songwriter and frontman of the band Pulp, where he detailed the minutiae of everyday British life through crackerjack lyrics and arch to aloof to tart delivery, striking out on his own after being built up by the music press and ecstatic fans to the exalted status of a compelling, world-weary figure kicking against the powers that be and the injustice of the world, while tackling such issues as romance, sex, death, loneliness, boredom, miscommunication, and perversity.

So it is understandable to think that Jarvis’s solo work would be a continuation of his output in Pulp – a Part 2, so to speak – but Jarvis, who, in Pulp, was so passionate, is now hemmed in by straight-laced song structure, underdeveloped lyrics, and subdued vocal delivery, at least on the numerous ballads.

As with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 5:55 (for which Jarvis penned most of the lyrics), the allure of Jarvis is in the contrast between the traditionally-structured tunes (the romantic ballads, the kick-in-the-pants rock numbers, the experimental number) and Jarvis’s razor-sharp lyrics and themes – but the album is overloaded with slow, tame ballads with repetitive lyric refrains and only the occasional stop ‘n’ start indie-rock firecracker. Jarvis only gets his knickers in a twist on a few songs, most notably on “Fat Children” and the hidden track, “Running The World”.

Most of the songs fit the tried and true but, unfortunately, tired mold of the conventional, coddling “pop” song and this format does not enhance the sting of Jarvis’s lyrics. All that is left is his words, vocal delivery and depth of emotion, but the expectation of a daring and acerbic Jarvis doesn’t quite come to pass on most of these songs.

Jarvis Cocker, the king of keen insight, is reduced to repetition and lyrics that aren’t as fully fleshed out as during his Pulp days. Many of the songs have repetitive lyrics on the choruses, usually with the song title being the repeated phrase (for instance, “…baby’s coming back to me…” being repeated eight times! Gasp, no Jarvis, this is not the pinnacle of your writing talents!).

Where is the caustic tongue, the self-assured sangfroid, the dry wit, the urgent compulsion of the grand statement from his time in Pulp? Where is the cold, dismissive sniping that he displayed on “Ciao!”, his duet with Miki Berenyi of Lush? Where is the creativity that turned downers into uppers based purely on his vigor and spark? The old Jarvis shines in spots, but the album isn’t spot on.

Jarvis is book-ended by “Loss Adjuster (excerpt Pt. 1)” and “Loss Adjuster (excerpt Pt. 2)”, two short (under 30 seconds each), calm, negligible instrumental segments of piano notes and picked guitar.

“Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time” is the first proper song, an, at first, engaging, smooth and traditional mid-tempo number of drums, guitars, piano, and eventually horns and synth lines that flaunts a repetitive-lyrics groove that wears out its welcome by the end of the song, wasting the listener’s time by mentioning the song title a whopping ten times in succession.

The cheekiest lyric is sung (well, more like spoken) by Jarvis with a bemused laugh: “…he can kiss ya where the sun don’t shine. Baby, don’t let him waste your time”. Jarvis can also enunciate a word like “hotpants” brilliantly, all nasal and arch as he dips and twists the word around his mouth, but those thrilling vocal moments are few and far between.

The next song, “Black Magic”, ups the ante with a rocker that, strangely enough, doesn’t exactly rock out, but is satisfying nonetheless. This is a glam-rock “clomp” instead of stomp because of the stop ‘n’ start rhythm of a crisp, then paused and dampened beat that creates a lurching, out-of-sync vibe against the short, emotive vocal phrasing.

Jarvis sounds in fine vocal form, very expressive, laying himself out vocally with simplistic, but effective lyrics: “Black magic that blows your mind away, and takes you somewhere that you want to stay, ah, you only get to stay one day, ah, that cold black magic”. The tune could have dropped in from the 1970s, with its tolling bell accents, canned “Ahhh-ing” chorus, and “Yeah, yeah, yeahs”. Jarvis doles out the delirium of lust in discreet units, parceling out the rave-up in controlled, but catchy sound bytes.

By the end of the song, the bell-like notes fade into drizzling rainfall and a rumble of thunder, segueing into “Heavy Weather”, a song that sounds familiar and comforting at the outset, due mostly to the well-trod metaphor of heavy weather reflecting the stormy nature of romantic relationships: “Stormy weather always makes me think of you, and watch out, ‘cause the storm is coming through”. This number is traditionally satisfying with its American, alt-country sound of flowing, bright guitars and strings, chorus lines that are smooth and catchy, and well-placed cracks of thunder on the verses (as well as rainfall throughout the track!).

Jarvis channels a bit of Morrissey and Brett Anderson in ballad mode on the slow confessional “I Will Kill Again”, except that Jarvis does it “straight”, so to speak, straining in a plaintive and deadly earnest tone against reedy notes, piano, and eventually violin. The instrumentation is calmer than the previous tunes, a pleasant letdown with perturbing lyrics. Jarvis plays the part of a killer who is conflicted because he can’t be friends with anyone – he might end up killing them! To whit, “…and don’t believe me if I claim to be your friend, because given half the chance I know that I will kill again – I’ll kill again”.

“Baby’s Coming Back To Me” is a throwback to the 1950s with its slow, shaken-sand beat and light, delicate musical arrangement of plunked xylophone and plinked bell notes. Jarvis sings in a hushed, innocent, expectant tone, starting with the awkward phrases of “Outside there’s children laughing, the radio plays my favorite song, the sun is shining, and peace broke out in the world, and no one says a cruel word…” – all because “Baby’s coming back to me”.

The song is so sweet and sentimental that there has to be a twist, and if there is one, it’s only alluded to in the lyrics, of the possibility that his “baby” is really not coming back to him, and that he’s either asleep and dreaming or dying and that is the only way he will see his true love again. The song has an unfinished feel and ends with the excessive repetition of the title and a clunky instrumental fade-out.

Jarvis is back to form on “Fat Children”, a punky, rockin’ number which gets the blood flowing with sharp vocal delivery and a Damon Albarn-like insouciance, and morbid lyrics about how “fat children took my life” and that “…passersby took me to the station…so I died in the back of the cab, but I’ll be back to haunt them”. This is a rawer, invigorating tune with low-bass guitar and abrasive noises and a sighing, drawn out “Ahhh-ing” on the chorus.

The lyrics, however, seem to be very skeletal, as Jarvis goes on to say that parents are the problem, creating “pampered princesses”, but it just seems like he’s picking strange targets like “fat children” (especially since he’s sympathetic to “Big Julie” on another song). Ummm, y’know, fat does not equal bad, Jarvis…

The alt-country sound surfaces again on “From A To I”, with its flowing guitars, bright “blip” synth notes, and muffled drum beat. Again, bleak lyrics are set against a pretty, mid-tempo ballad, as Jarvis sweetly sing-songs in a higher tone “…so like the Roman Empire failed away, let me tell you, we are going the same way…I’ll behold the decline and fall, all hold hands with our backs to the wall”.

The song contains his most clever and compact statement so far: “It’s the end, why don’t you admit it? It’s the same from Auschwitz to Ipswich. Evil comes from I know not where, but if you take a look inside yourself, maybe you’ll find some in there”.

The bluebirds at Disney should be atwitter about “Disney Time”, a cinematic, noir ballad where Jarvis sings in a deeper and richer voice amid a far-away, muffled drum beat, piano, reverberating, low-burn guitar, and eventually strings. The tune is an attack on Disney’s sanitized view of the world, where the company fills children’s heads with dreams “…and hope to be like Bambi’s mother, and die off-screen”.

Jarvis sees a prime target in Disney, where “Everything’s gonna be fine, here in Disney time”, and at holidays, Disney “…granted us a view of a world so much better than the one we knew”. By the end of the song, the sounds build up to orchestral levels and Jarvis really pushes his emotions to the forefront, and the listener shares in the magic of Jarvis instead of Disney.

The dusky, romantic ballad motif continues with “Tonite”, with a loop of a crooner singing “bom-bom-bom” that sounds like the start of the golden oldie “Mr. Sandman”, and featuring strummed, twangy guitars, “sprinkled-star” sound, and hushed, talking vocals and simplistic lyrics: “…the future starts tonight, and you cannot make everything alright, but you can stop being wrong – tonight”.

The best line on the whole album, aside from the hidden track, is pure old Jarvis (or Morrissey…): “…somebody falls in love, somebody falls, from a windowsill, but you, you just sit tight, hiding out from life”. For a short while he rails against snot-nosed kids, culture vultures, and “so-called” artists, exclaiming that the night belongs to lovers, “so show some respect”.

“Big Julie” is a counterbalance, at least in theme, to “Fat Children”. Here Jarvis is sympathetic to Julie, a girl who, from the sound-clip at the start “belonged to no club and she was a member of nothing in the world – and she was afraid”. The song starts on a low-key note, with hushed vocals, about the unfairness of people and life, about small towns and stupid kids, and how “Big Julie” hears a song on the radio coming from somewhere else, “floating beyond time” and “just wait until Big Julie rules the world”.

The chorus is a change of pace, with staccato piano and sawing violin, and Jarvis getting emotionally into it, going for the big push, cramming more lyrics into this tune than the rest of the songs put together: “…but this song will play… it’s the sound of her trying to find something to like…and the song may lead her far away, but tonight it seems to light the way, and she can almost see the future shine”.

“Loss Adjuster (excerpt Pt.2)”, with its simple piano notes and guitar strum ends the main part of the album, and leads the way to the most sprawling, experimental song called “Quantum Theory”. Jarvis sings in a serious, dusky tone that is half whispered at first, sounding a bit like Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode. On the chorus, against Enya-like repeating vocal clips, he slowly intones: “…somewhere everyone is happy, somewhere fish do not have bones, somewhere gravity cannot reach us anymore, somewhere you are not alone”.

Spacey sounds come in and violins screech and are drawn out as Jarvis talks about dreaming of a parallel dimension where maybe everything is good, as opposed to our own world. A full, dark synth sound wends into the mix with lighter, more angelic female chorus and violins, as Jarvis repeats “…everything’s gonna be alright”, sounding like Trent Renzor on the last line.

Then, still within “Quantum Theory”, after about 25 minutes of silence, Jarvis launches into his diatribe, “Running The World”. Welcome back Jarvis!! This is more like it, the Jarvis of old going back to his stomping grounds. He talks about how the working class has been made obsolete, that the rich and powerful eat lobster and send their kids to top schools, and that “let’s be perfectly clear boys and girls, oh, c*nts are still running the world”.

This song is chock full of lyrical goodness. Take, for instance, this choice morsel, which Jarvis says very calmly: “Well, did you hear? There’s a natural order, those which deserve it will end up with the most, that the cream cannot help but always rise to the top, well I say – shit floats”. As the song progresses, the lyrics take on the form of a tirade, as Jarvis gets hot under the collar, exclaiming “In theory I respect your right to exist. I will kill ya if you move in next to me. It stinks, it sucks, it’s anthropomorphically unjust…c*nts are still running the world”.