Review: PULP’s Jarvis Cocker evolves on the brilliant, danceable JARV IS…’Beyond the Pale’
"Do something new, or do something else," Jarvis sings on "Am I Missing Something?," one of the seven songs on Beyond the Pale, Jarvis Cocker's first proper album in 11 years. With his new band, JARV IS..., he's definitely doing something new, while still working within the framework of what we expect from the former Pulp frontman. It is very good to have him back.
You may not even recall that Cocker's last album, 2008's Further Complications, was a credible if underwhelming foray into loud rock produced by Steve Albini. Beyond the Pale, however, mostly presents the lanky, bespeckled Brit we remember, with tales of lust, love, death, supermarkets -- and the occasional badger -- set to swaggering, widescreen pop. It is an older, more introspective, but no less randy Jarvis Cocker, who has been cataloging his slow decay since at least Pulp's This is Hardcore. Part of him still wants to be the raver of "Sorted for Es and Whizz," but is now "lost in the land of the living room," listening to "House Music All Night Long," home alone while his girlfriend is out of town and his mates are out partying. "Goddamn this claustrophobia! / I should be disrobing ya" is an inspired couplet that only Jarvis could deliver.
Getting old is a major theme here but more to the point Beyond the Pale is about what to do with the time we have left on this earth. What not to do is stand still or tread water. "Embrace the darkness & all that it entails / Move beyond the pale," he sings on the album's opening track, "Save the Whale," which has him whispering in his lowest register a la Leonard Cohen while drum machines tick and violins dance politely. Again, "do something new."
The record then immediately shifts gears, musically, while furthering the theme with "Must I Evolve?," which has Cocker pondering his place in the universe and wondering if we've progressed at all from Neanderthal times. In the midst of time travelling from the stone age to present day, he makes time to revisit a particularly wild night of ecstasy fueled debauchery. It's all connected, "Dragging my knuckles / Listening to Frankie Knuckles."
"Must I Evolve?," which was JARV IS' debut single, is some particularly inspired, revved up, swirling psych rock that is a good example of what this new band brings to the table. Serafina Steer (harp, keyboards) and Emma Smith (violin, guitar) provide call-and-response vocals to many of the songs on the record, sometimes answering Jarvis' rhetorical questions ("Yes Yes Yes Yes" to his queries of evolution) or commenting on the action. Drummer Adam Betts and bassist Andrew McKinney are a lithe but powerful rhythm section, and Jarvis' onetime Relaxed Muscle bandmate Jason Buckle brings weird sonic textures to the equation. He's never had a group like this before, and they were instrumental in shaping the songs on tour before they ever released a record. In fact, the bulk of Beyond the Pale was recorded live on those tours and then finished and finessed in the studio. Turn "Must I Evolve?" up really loud and you can hear the applause at the end.
His bandmates also push the record further into dance territory than Jarvis has been in since the early '90s. "Sometimes I am Pharaoh," a song sung from the point of view of the kind of street performers that hang around cultural landmarks in big cities, is structured like an EDM song with builds and drops (and is begging for a remix to really take it there). Album-closer "Children of the Echo" is a spaced out groover that you could imagine the late Andrew Weatherall spinning at Manchester's Hacienda in 1990. (Betts, who used to play with Squarepusher, really shines here.) These seven songs are all pretty long, but JARV IS...never let things get boring.
Some may be be bummed to learn there are less straight-ahead stories -- a la "Common People" or "Disco 2000" -- than we usually get from Cocker in favor of the album's Big Concept. It's best expressed in "Children of the Echo," which plays off an essay Jarvis wrote in The Guardian back in 2012 about The Beatles and the failure of Britpop, and how we need to move forward:
Sooner or later everything will remind you of something else
So repeat after me:
I am breathing
I am dancing
I am a product of all my ancestors both living & dead
I have created an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful entity
Who does not care about me one bit
He does all this without sounding like a motivational speaker -- though he has spent time in the last 10 years as a PowerPoint presentation-giver -- and peppers these songs with the kind of droll one liners, clever observations and witty asides he's famous for, like at the beginning of "Children of the Echo" when he sings "You say I don't communicate...[long pause]...no comment." Or in "Am I Missing Something?" where he notes we spend too much time with things like "Waiting for flares to come back in again" against a cinematic sweep that recalls, at times, Pulp's "I Spy."
There is, however, room for one old school Jarvis Cocker classic. "Swanky Modes," which is both a sonic and lyrical cousin to "This is Hardcore," recalls a tryst he had with a past-her-prime actress who was now working at the fashion boutique of the title and living in a run-down flat above it. Cocker always nails the gritty details, like the hazards of sex on the kitchen table ("Toast crumbs like needles on the back of your legs"). But this too manages to fit Beyond the Pale's warnings of staying stagnant: "Ain’t it sad when your dreams outlast you?" It's the kind of "remember when" that will make you never want to indulge in "remember when."
Be it the long absence from music or the circumstances that created this record ("It's not a 'live' record, it is an 'ALIVE' record" is pretty spot-on), Jarvis sounds more engaged, more in-the-zone than he has since at least his 2006 solo debut, if not Pulp's This is Hardcore. Beyond the Pale is immensely entertaining, and he is also clearly taking his own advice. It's something else.