In the song The Professional, one of the darkest exercises in self analysis on Pulp’s Britpop comedown album This is Hardcore, Jarvis Cocker whispers: “I’m only trying to give you what you’ve come to expect. Just another song ’bout single mothers and sex.” On a record littered with painful introspection, the message here was clear: Cocker had woken up in the litter of the last party to find he had become a parody.
The bright light of clarity eventually proved too much for Pulp. They laboured on for one last lacklustre studio album (the ironically titled We Love Life) and a Greatest Hits collection that nobody bought before finally shutting up shop. Jarvis – who, it was once said, would turn up for the opening of an envelope – became a recluse. Absconding to Paris, it’s likely he spent the next few years wondering how he went from being one of Britain’s most revered songwriters to an author of the musical equivalent of mucky seaside postcards.
Now, after a slow rehabilitation, Cocker is back. Unfortunately, over a decade after he became a victim of his own foibles, he seems to be falling into a similar trap.
Jarvis comes to the Ancienne Belgique with a set-list compiled from two album’s worth of solo material which tends to show up his weaknesses rather than play to his considerable strengths. After making a strong comeback with his eponymous debut, the majority of his latest effort fails to cut it in the live arena. The wry humour is still there along with that clever social dissection which makes him a brilliant, observational lyricist but, just as in the mid-1990s, Jarvis has been seduced by an obsession which often buries his insight. Whereas it was once that typically British brand of naughtiness – extra-marital affairs behind net curtains, the voyeurism and self-loathing of suburban repression – he now seems consumed by the inadequacies of the male gender.
Songs such as I Never Said I Was Deep, Leftovers and Hold Still are lyrically sharp but tediously interchangeable in tempo, tune and topic; all melodramatic, mid-paced stories of the various failings of men. They are, like many of the characters involved, sadly flaccid.
But let’s be perfectly clear: Jarvis Cocker was, is, and always will be a true rock star; a larger-than-life persona, an idiosyncratic artist who calls it like he sees it, and – while the title Legend in bandied about all too frivolously in the music world – he is undoubtedly an icon, a national treasure.
And despite the periods of ponderous balladry tonight, the rock star Jarvis gets more than a few chances to cut loose. He high-kicks and spasms his way across the stage in that electric shock dance style of his while remaining pitch-perfect and passionate in his delivery. In between the songs, he oozes tailored class as he glides from one wing to the other, effortlessly engaging his adoring crowd in humorous banter as if he’s passing out scones at a garden party. He cuts a distinctly more relaxed and jovial figure than at any time since Pulp went into hiatus.
When he delves into the more incisive material from his first solo effort and the rockier efforts from new album Further Complications, he can be forgiven for his current bouts of self-indulgence. Homewreaker, seemingly based on the 1960s Batman theme, and the frantic Caucasian Blues raise the crowd from its stupor while the glam stomp of Angela, the scathingly brilliant Fat Children and the triumphant Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time, are all worthy of Pulp’s heyday. Jarvis may not chase fame and fortune as he once did but when the mood takes him it’s clear his passion for music and the live experience remains undimmed.
When all is said and done, it’s wonderful to have him back but if he does choose to leave us once more and return to solitude, only to resurface a couple of years further down the line with his obsessions in check, I for one won’t be sorry to wave him off. And I will be one of the first to welcome him back with open arms when he rises again.
Originally Published in The Bulletin Magazine (www.thebulletin.be)