Jarvis Cocker, angular, singular, in flappy mac and TV specs, in jeans, V-neck and Kickers, looks like no one so much as himself. Ambling into an empty drinking club in London's Soho - "Nobody here? Great, it's like we own the joint" - he's so unchanged, so familiar, so much part of the national furniture, you could be forgiven for forgetting that he ever left us. But leave us he did, in early 2003, sloping off to Paris with his French wife, Camille Bidault-Waddington, to sip café crèmes and watch his son Albert, now three and a half, grow up: "He's bi-lingual. I'm not. I can make myself understood, that's all. If I were having a row, I'd use English. And if I wanted to say something nice, as well."
Nonetheless, Jarvis is Le Jarv these days. Why did he go? "The short answer is: cos I was gonna stop. Rock stars don't generally get better as they get older and I always thought I had to stop before it got embarrassing."
Jarvis fled from pop's unforgiving glare just before he turned 40. The age was important, he thinks. Pulp's ex-frontman describes "squeezing in" marriage and having a kid mere months before getting there: "It was the same thing with my virginity. I just managed to lose it before I got to 20: like, I should have done this by now." Then, a fortnight after his birthday, he woke up with tinnitus. "It was comedy, really. My body said, 'Right, okay, 40, I'm going to start packing in.' I'm not having a mid-life crisis, though. I've done that: This Is Hardcore was the crisis point. Which included a song called Help The Aged. That seems funny to me now, that I wrote a song called Help The Aged, aged 33."
Now, Jarvis is 43. And - hallelujah! - he's over his age/profession embarrassment. After spending the past three or so years in low-key collaborations - writing songs for Nancy Sinatra, Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Lovers (French electronic pair based in Sheffield), plus Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire; playing (under the alias Darren Spooner) with Richard Hawley in loopy duo Relaxed Muscle; curating the double CD, The Trip, with Steve Mackey - Jarvis has loped back into the limelight all by himself, with his first ever solo LP, Jarvis. "I've resigned myself to all the potential humiliation," he says, tapping his fag on the table, not entirely joking.
What he's worried about, he says, is a combination of elements, including subject matter ("you don't want to go into perv territory"), as well as the "unsettling" sight of an older man on stage giving it loads ("It's like a pensioner freaking out. You think, 'Ooh God, that's not right"'). "But, in the end, if you feel compelled to do something you gotta do it," he says. "And not everybody goes crap as they get older. Nick Cave does quite well. Leonard Cohen ain't done bad, and he's 70."
And Jarvis? Well, what he likes to call his 'record' - "cos it's a record of what's happened to me over the last few years" - is a wonderful, carefully sequenced selection of songs that range from glam-rock stompers (current single Don't Let Him Waste Your Time, and Black Magic) through dark 'n' twisted views of childhood (Disney Time, Fat Children), to acoustic dreamer Quantum Theory and the angry-funny triumph of hidden track (C**ts Are Still) Running The World. Not pervy, though there's an uneasy creepiness that pervades Jarvis the LP. But then there always was in Pulp's output; we just sidelined it, preferring instead to admire Our Hero spitting wit, striking poses and shoving his bum in the crumbling face of pomposity. Jarvis the icon overwhelmed Jarvis the musician.
Even now, it's tempting to ditch the album chat in favour of talking about the world in general. After all, we've missed the Cocker take on things: on our lives, on his. Luckily, the record itself throws up quite a few topics. Disney Time - one of Jarvis' favourite tracks, "because it's short" - makes an unnerving connection between Dumbo and porno. "Pornography takes all the reality out of sex and Disney does that to family life; presents this weird ideal that you're not gonna measure up to."
And Running The World gets us on to politics, via Live8. "It's not a criticism of the people involved in Live8, because they were very sincere," says Jarvis. "It's more about political leaders and the heads of multinational corporations. Live8 let them off the hook, cos it makes people think that something's being addressed, and those leaders did agree to certain measures, which a lot of them haven't fulfilled. It's like they're saying, have your protest, get it off your chest - however, we aren't actually going to do anything to help."
We talk about capitalism - "it's just an economic system, a way of doing business, but it's become an ideology" - and what its rampant success means for the UK. "It puts us in a weird position, especially for what would have been called the working class. Because the working class aren't the people paid shit wages to produce stuff, they're not made to do the dirty work any more. That happens in Malaysia and China now, the working class should be called the consuming class, because the only way to make them useful is to say, 'Right, you, buy all this crap that's being made. Instead of being a model worker, be a model consumer."
Stuff that in your pipe and count the resulting carbon emissions, Thom Yorke! We talk of France, where capitalism isn't quite so welcomed. Jarvis was pleased - "amazed, really" - to see that the protests of French students against a proposed employment law resulted in the government repealing the policy. "Whereas in England, you get protests but nothing happens. People get disheartened if they don't feel they have any voice or presence in the way the country's run. There's a sense of hopelessness. And Tony Blair, saying history will prove me right about Iraq. That's not right. It's a dangerous thing. Coming from someone in Islam, saying history will remember me, people would say, 'Those are the words of a fanatic.'"
Despite all this, Jarvis hasn't truly shaken off his Brit past, any more than he has his pop one. He finds France conservative and Parisian society moribund, with all the riff-raff living outside the Périphérique ring-road. Plus French rock music is, of course "dire". Nevertheless, he's settled down, takes pleasure in his family life to the extent of worrying that this album is going to disrupt it: "Which has come as a surprise to me. I used to get itchy if I was in a domestic interior for more than half an hour." Also to his surprise, Jarvis has found that he enjoys being slightly out of touch. "For instance," he points out, "I completely missed The Darkness. They were getting big when I left England, and now they've gone, and I didn't even have to be contaminated. I'm quite grateful."
Jarvis did hear about The Libertines, went to see them play, "and thought, God, that's really, really awful". But since then, at the NME awards last February, he saw Pete Doherty perform solo and decided that "he has got something quite good. I wouldn't write him off". From Pete, we move naturally to Kate. "All that press about 'it must be him corrupting her', what a load of bollocks," snorts Jarv "I wouldn't say it was the other way round, but there's no way she didn't know what she was getting into. And he's a fairly young bloke in a band, it's your fantasy. You get famous, you get to shag Kate Moss. You would do it."
And the drugs?
"I don't give a f**k whether he's out of his mind or not. I don't like taking drugs, but if people wanna take drugs, they'll do 'em. It's he's making music that people want to listen to, that's what matters." He's right, of course, as always. The question of role models arises: Jarvis finds it distasteful that the media's take on the Kate Moss Sniffs White Powder scandal centred around whether she'd still be able to sell clothes (capitalism again), whereas in, say the Rolling Stones' drug bust, all these years ago, the press argued that taking drugs was a personal freedom. Fat chance of that happening these days. From here, we move back to politics again.
"With all the media scrutiny that goes into people's private lives," says Jarvis, in his dry, deliberate way, "all the tests people have to pass, you're bound to get some idiot leading the country. If you look at Clinton, I can understand someone spunking up on somebody's dress. I'm not saying it's great to cheat on your wife and shag a chubby intern, but at least it's a human impulse. But if you look at Bush, he's getting his kicks in much more dangerous and unsavoury ways. Maybe someone should suggest to George Bush that they give him a wank. Then he might chill out a bit."
I laugh out loud, disturbing the handful of other drinkers who've wandered in to the club. Mind you they're not talking to each other, I notice, but eavesdropping. No wonder. It's such a joy to hear Jarvis talk again, to ask him what he thinks and to get a reply that you'd never predict. "Oh, I don't know the answer to anything," says Jarvis, twirling another cigarette between his skinny fingers. "I'm just a silly pop star." And with that, he leaves, mac flying around his pipecleaner limbs, pop professor, one of a kind. Don't stay away, Le Jarv. Your country needs you.