After the Britpop years of the 90s had peaked, it’s fair to say the disillusionment with fame and the resulting hangover had left Pulp in a creative rut. 2001’s Scott Walker-produced ‘We Love Life’ would be the last we heard from Jarvis Cocker’s seminal Sheffield outfit until a series of rapturously received reunion shows a decade later. In between those we got the sound of undistilled Jarvis with his two solo albums from 2006 and 2009. Since then, Cocker’s musical activity has been fairly low key. Aside from a few guest spots and collaborations, his radio show and other projects were what he tended to concentrate on. Talk of a rumoured Pulp reunion album was put to bed, with the quietly iconic frontman showing a desire to move onwards.
So here we are with a new project that falls somewhere between a third solo album and a debut from a new Jarvis-led band. “JARV IS…” is an experiment that has resulted in a brief but fascinating journey of a record. It proves Cocker is at his best when in his role as a frontman rather than a solo artist. Having others to compliment and fuel his ideas clearly allows for more accomplished music, and in the space of seven brilliant songs, we find an inspired spirit coming back to life once again. The creeping suspense and effortless cool of opener ‘Save The Whale’ seems to rediscover the spark and vitality of the Pulp years without sounding like Cocker is deliberately trying to recreate the past.
The infectious drive and development of the fantastic mini-epic ‘Must I Evolve?’ has a propulsive energy and a hunger to explore new territories, as reflected in a lot of the words on this album. He also remains just as humorous and sharp as always, with the loose yet sonically ambitious music of his group providing the perfect backdrop to his lyrics and narratives. Along with lines like “This body is a temporary home, this body wants to take your body home” and its irresistible hooks, ‘Am I Missing Good’ brings to mind the vibe of songs like 1995’s ‘I Spy’ from the classic Different Class.
Conjuring up an isolation anthem, the shape throwing groove of ‘House Music All Night’ combines drama, superb arrangements and priceless lines (“god damn this claustrophobia, coz I should be disrobing ya”) along with an unintentional, startlingly apt prophecy written a couple of years before the days of lockdowns and global pandemics. “I was jealous of some friends who had gone to this dance music festival in Wales,” he said. “I started writing this song as a way to kind of pass the time and distract myself from my jealousy.” Endless possibilities are what keeps this music thriving. Bursting with unsettling atmospheres and squealing chaos, ‘Sometimes I Am Pharaoh’ is a strange, heavy, jerky, jazzy thing that is vocally reminiscent of Bowie’s ‘Scary Monsters’ era.
Elsewhere, ‘Swanky Nodes’ finds a more mellow avenue and wouldn’t sound out of place on 1998’s ‘This Is Hardcore’, yet none of these tracks are a rehash of the past. Making music that sounds like a copy of a copy is clearly not of any interest to a creatively curious figure like Cocker. “The echo fades with ever diminishing returns” he repeats at the end of the tangling, brilliantly rhythmic closer ‘Children Of The Echo’, which serves up a high reaching climax to this fine record.
Back in his natural position as leader, a rejuvenated Cocker and his expressive band of musicians have made what may be a contender for 2020’s finest record.