A Glass Darkly
Words: April Long, Photographer: Serge Leblon
Taken from Nylon, April 2007
As Pulp’s eccentric frontman, Jarvis Cocker was the cleverest man in Britpop. Now, with his long-awaited solo album, the original Mis-Shape proves his edges haven’t dulled.
Imagine a glimpse inside the cozy Parisian abode Jarvis Cocker shares with his wife of four years, stylist Camille Bidault-Waddington, and their young son, Albert. There are paintings on quaintly wallpapered walls, toys on the staircase, flowers spilling out of vases, and books, books, everywhere you look. It's a picture of domestic bliss, a tableau of tranquility. But then imagine this: The man of the house has a lethal secret.
This is what Cocker envisioned, anyway, when writing a song called "I Will Kill Again," for his self-titled debut solo album. It starts with an evocation of homey harmony - a fond family, rabbits in the garden, a half-bottle of wine in the evenings - but ends with the ominous warning, "And don't believe me/ If I claim to be your friend/ 'Cos given half the chance/ I know that I will kill again." Of course, it's a metaphor. Cocker is not the murdering kind. But he does have something inside him that struggles with the quiet life. And although he moved to Paris four years ago, thinking, he says, "that it was time to grow old gracefully," he still had an urge that eventually grew so strong it could no longer be contained. Jarvis Cocker had to kill again.
"I couldn't seem to stop writing songs," he says, that syrupy Yorkshire accent happily undiluted by his time in France. "And I finally decided maybe that means I do still want to be a singer, even though I keep trying to convince myself that I should be doing something more practical or worthwhile with my existence. I mean, there was that thought in the back of my head, that maybe this is the time I should bland out - I’m married, I’ve got a kid - if I am going to write songs maybe they should be tender acoustic ballads or something... But then I realised that's probably not going to happen with me."
And it certainly hasn't. In fact, Jarvis is sharper, more bilious, and ultimately more reassuring than anything he recorded in Pulp's prime: It has greater emotional and political heft, partly because Cocker has now cast aside that thin veil of irony behind which he used to hide. There's still a lot of humour here - in the punky "Fat Children," he's mugged and murdered for his cell phone by the titular obese adolescents ("They wobbled menacingly under the yellow street lights it became a situation") - but it's laden with acute finger-pointing social commentary (as he concludes in the same song, "The parents are the problem/ Giving birth to maggots without the sense to become flies"). He's always been expert at peeling away the veneer of comfortable life to show the snakepit of malcontent at its core, and certainly has never shied away from prodding the dark underbelly of human affairs (“It doesn't feel right for me to write a song about, I don't know, 'l love you baby,’” he says with a black laugh. "There would have to be something horrible happen in the second verse. Like, 'l love you baby, but I'm going to have to decapitate you.' That's just the way my mind works"), but there is a new kind of unflinching perspicacity here, and true tenderness - it's a record of big ideas, a reminder that something intelligent and meaningful can still be conveyed in pop songs.
Post-Pulp, his activities have been decidedly idiosyncratic, making the road to this comeback characteristically wayward: He adopted the identity of a character named Darren Spooner (and inexplicably wore a skeleton suit) to make the Relaxed Muscle electro album in 2003, wrote some songs for Marianne Faithfull and Nancy Sinatra, appeared on a Serge Gainsbourg tribute record as well as a compilation of pirate songs, and popped up for two seconds in a Harry Potter film. Then, in the summer of 2005, he released the download-only single "Running the World," with the un-broadcastable chorus, "Bluntly put in the fewest of words/ Cunts are still running the world" and posted a series of podcasts on his MySpace page that featured him reading Icelandic folk tales and J.D. Salinger stories. This was the signal that he was beginning to engage with society on a bigger scale again, realising as he looked out with increasing frustration and despair at the state of things that if he didn't speak up, maybe no one else would.
"Listening to the music on the British charts right now, you wouldn't even know there was a war going on," he remarks, then adds, after a thoughtful pause: "This record was written over the last four years, and there have been some pretty weird things going, so I had to mention them in some way. But I don't think it's a hopeless scenario, and I hope it doesn't come across as a hopeless record. I was attempting to engage with those darker and more unpalatable things - not only things in the world at large, but within myself. I always think that if you grapple with things and try to deal with them, then that's much better than just pretending that they're not really happening." And, as he points out in "Tonite" - "you cannot set the world to rights/ But you could stop being wrong" - the power to change starts with all of us.
Jarvis touches on his struggles as a parent - the oddly spine-chilling "Disneytime" reflects upon how we sugar-coat fucked-up reality with anodyne cartoons ("I've got a bugbear against Disney. I don't think it's right to present kids with that kind of world because it isn't the world that they're going to live in," he explains), and finds its resolution in the elegant, uplifting "Quantum Theory," in which he conjures up a parallel universe where "everyone is happy." "I tried to get the feeling across that I wanted to believe that, but I wasn't particularly convinced," he says, wryly. "And I actually think that we do need some of the dark, messy stuff in human nature, because otherwise life would be pretty boring."
It seems that Cocker, the elegant proto-geek, the rumpled, owlish extrovert who could never quite stomach the pomp and self-importance of stardom, has become something of an elder statesman; and this album is a kind of Greek chorus for our times. As he sings in "Black Magic," a glam-stomper built around a sample from Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover:" "It's the true believers that crash and burn/ But there ain't no way I'm ever gonna learn." Here's hoping the killer in Jarvis Cocker never gives up.