Friday, June 15, 2007

Jarvis Cocker, The Real Brit Pop Poet Laureate

The mantle of Britain's rock and roll poet laureate gets doled out to some flavor of the month with numbing regularity (the current recipient appears to be Alex Turner, frontman of post-punk darlings The Arctic Monkeys--at least according to the British music press and Entertainment Weekly), but this side of Elvis Costello there's no bloke more richly deserving of that oft-bandied-but-seldom-earned title than Jarvis Cocker.

Here in the US you've probably never heard of him unless you're a rock critic, a music nerd, or English (or some combination of the three) but across the pond Jarvis Cocker is an honest-to-God institution, a charismatic, funny, and refreshingly self-deprecating pop star whose sharply-observed lyrics of class struggle and love in its many incarnations have endeared him to a whole generation of musicians and fans. His words--and his irresistible baritone voice--are as tartly, quintessentially British as a really great bag of salt-and-vinegar crisps.

Part of the man's charm lay in the fact that he's one of the finest examples of an underdog made good in a music industry that casts off artists with the frequency of used Kleenex. A native of the working-class Brit hub of Sheffield, Cocker formed the pop band Pulp in the late seventies. He and his group were the Rodney Dangerfields of the UK pop scene for ages, kicking around its lower rungs for a good decade-and-a-half before releasing their hit disc, His 'n' Hers, in 1994.

Seemingly overnight, the singer developed one of the most pointed lyrical pens ever to emerge from a Britrock group. One minute, Cocker was vividly and hilariously chronicling directionless thugs in the suburbs on 'Joyriders' ("We're so thick we can't think/Can't think of anything except sh@t, sleep, and drink"); the next, he was crooning with disarming empathy about a young woman's lost virginity on 'Do You Remember the First Time?'. Pulp's infectious sound (catchy euro-disco with wafts of Roxy Music and David Bowie) provided the initial hook, but Cocker's incredibly detailed and utterly riveting stories formed the foundation. His eye for random minutae (kids playing in the park, a female protagonist's haggard morning-after staredown in the bathroom), all rendered with an author's attention to detail, suggested Ray Davies nursed on a diet of roller-rink new wave pop.

Pulp's final three discs--1995's Different Class, 1998's This is Hardcore, and the band's 2002 swansong We Love Life-- would see the group's musical pallate expand impressively, but Jarvis Cocker's vivid lyrical brushstrokes remained their trump card to the end. His lyrics explore societal inequity with laser focus (Class's propulsively catchy UK hit 'Common People' turns a one-night stand between a working-class art student and a fickle rich art-school girl into a profound indictment against the English class system); and yet he also shares Randy Newman's acumen for creating richly-textured characters with a few well-spun verses.

Singular as it is, Jarvis Cocker's talent didn't form in a vacuum. He shares a fascination for sin and seediness with Soft Cell's Marc Almond, but seldom indulges in Almond's camp theatrics: On This is Hardcore's dark title track Cocker finds a core of decency and chivalry in the most decadent of sexual trysts ("It's what men in stained raincoats pay for/But in here it is pure"). And throughout his work with Pulp, he's taken the vivid lyrical imagery of perhaps his most profound influence--cult icon Scott Walker--and leavened it with palpable humanity.

Like any writer worth his salt, Cocker gets inside the subjects of his songs, living and breathing their desires, neuroses, joys, and pains. You've met the sad, proud divorced dad who narrates This is Hardcore's "A Little Soul," and the vengeful philanderer in Different Class's "I Spy" is sketched with an intriguing combination of self-loathing and almost pathetic vulnerability. Then there's that wicked sense of humor: on "Bad Cover Version" from We Love Life, Cocker compares an ex-girlfriend's new beau to generic corn flakes, the Planet of the Apes TV series, and "The Stones since the eighties" (if none of the above references make you chuckle gleefully, then you've stumbled onto the wrong blog, Gomer).

This year saw the US release of Jarvis Cocker's first solo album. It easily equals the man's finest moments with Pulp, hunkering down favorably with the organic beauty of We Love Life and proving that a rock star can not only perservere, but thrive creatively at the ripe old age of forty-something.

He remains at the top of his game lyrically, whether he's counseling a woman to kick her commitment-phobic boyfriend in the pants on 'Don't Let Him Waste your Time,' or spiking the elixir of love with acerbic wit on 'Tonite' ("Somebody falls in love/Somebody falls from a windowsill"). Better yet, his melodies stand toe-to-toe with his words (no small feat, that). 'Running the World' (a bonus track on the US edition of the new disc) sees Cocker angily revisiting class struggle with a tune as addictive as 'Common People.' 'Fat Children,' meanwhile, details the saga of a well-heeled husband/dad assaulted by a gang of thugs, and as the protagonist dies in a cab he grumbles about his assailants' lousy upbringing before haunting the streets of Tottenham from beyond the grave. That this bloodied-but-unbowed veteran of the British music scene sets the whole tale to an itchy post-punk backbeat that'd have Franz Ferdinand or Bloc Party pogo'ing is the icing on the cake. Or better put, it's the salt and vinegar on the crisps.

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