(Photo by Xavi Torrent/WireImage)

Something Changed: Can Jarvis Cocker recapture former glories in 2020?

Alexander Larman asks whether Jarvis Cocker’s latest album release will reignite his former success

Artillery Row

‘Whom the gods wish to destroy’, Cyril Connolly huffed in his 1938 book Enemies of Promise, ‘they first call promising.’ He was referring to his own comparative lack of literary success and reputation, but his words have become talismanic for anyone whose glittering early years have faded into the slow and disappointing trudge of mediocrity or obscurity. Countless writers, filmmakers and artists have fallen into this particular rut, and many once-promising figures are now unjustly forgotten, the material of pub quizzes or particularly fiendish questions on Pointless. And yet there is one man whose career and its vicissitudes have proved a particularly fascinating yet often frustrating spectacle for his admirers, and this is none other than Jarvis Branson Cocker: musician, presenter, commentator and wit.

It is an intriguing and enjoyable listen, occasionally summoning up Cocker’s glory days of 25 years ago, but it is unlikely to reach a wide audience of the previously uninitiated

Cocker has recently released his first solo album in over a decade, Beyond The Pale. It is credited to a new band that he has put together, but its name alone, ‘JARV IS’, makes it abundantly clear who the driving artistic force behind it is. Over its seven songs, with titles like ‘Must I Evolve?’ and ‘House Music All Night Long’, Cocker returns to his usual lyrical preoccupations of the distinction between man’s mental image of himself as a suave, predatory alpha male and the rather sadder reality, of a Y-front wearing failure desperately driven to sleazy and opportunistic behaviour, aided by a cocktail of drink, drugs and adrenaline. It is an intriguing and enjoyable listen, occasionally summoning up Cocker’s glory days of 25 years ago, but it is unlikely to reach a wide audience of the previously uninitiated. It is also a pity that live performance – undoubtedly Cocker’s greatest métier –  has been curtailed by current events, meaning that he has instead been compelled to give characteristically mordant and witty interviews in order to publicise it. One journalist wrote that it took him a significant amount of time to realise that Cocker’s referring to his afternoon activity of ‘unblocking his girlfriend’s sink’ was not in fact a particularly arch allusion to sex.

If one expects Cocker, now a sprightly 56, to still have the priapic fascinations of a younger man, then that is because his own imperial phase as singer and principal songwriter of the band Pulp established him as the laureate of the bright but frustrated working classes. As he sang with impressive anger and passion on the group’s signature song ‘Common People’, ‘You’ll never watch your life slide out of view/And then dance and drink and screw/Because there’s nothing left to do.’ He was pigeonholed as part of the Britpop movement along with acts such as Kula Shaker, Dodgy, Oasis and their ilk, but in fact, like Thom Yorke and Brett Anderson, Cocker was a far more astute and enigmatic figure, for whom the commercial success of British guitar bands happily coincided with his group’s eventual emergence, blinking and sweating, into the artistic mainstream.

Cocker grew up in Sheffield, in a house without any male influence, which he credited for his perspicacious approach to the female psyche. His father abandoned the family for a new life in Australia when he was seven, later leading his son to write one of his most poignant songs, ‘A Little Soul’, about his depature. He had artistic ambitions from an early age, forming his first band, Arabacus Pulp, while a 15-year old schoolboy. John Peel was an early admirer, granting the band a much-coveted Peel Session in 1981, and they released three albums, It, Freaks and Separations, all of which garnered some mild critical interest but little commercial success. Yet by the time of their breakthrough album, His ‘n’ Hers, in 1994, Cocker had established himself as one of the most charismatic and entertaining figures in modern popular culture. Unlike many of his peers, who preferred surliness and cockiness to act as their hallmarks, Cocker was an interviewer’s dream. From an early stage in his career, comparisons were made with Morrissey and Alan Bennett, as his intelligence and wit made for articles just as scintillating as his brilliant songs.

The milieu that he chose to write about could loosely be termed ‘bedsit opera’, as Cocker portrayed outsiders and social disaffection with the sharpness of an intellectual and the compassion of a fellow sufferer. Over and over again, his songs referred to sexual dysfunction and frustrated voyeurism, but without the sneering or contempt that many of his peers exhibited. If one compares Blur’s ‘Country House’, with its trite lyrics and horrible end-of-the-pier video, to Pulp’s ‘David’s Last Summer’, a brilliantly incisive narrative account of a teenage seduction attempt taking place during a long, hot, monotonous summer, the distinction between workmanlike accomplishment and true artistry becomes obvious.

The critical and commercial success of His ‘n’ Hers led to the band’s masterpiece Different Class, which contained many of the songs which Pulp became synonymous with, including ‘Sorted for Es and Wizz’, ‘Disco 2000’ and, of course, ‘Common People’. The lyrical concerns that Cocker, who still sang in a strong Yorkshire accent, had displayed on his earlier work were once again to the fore, but burnished to a level of quotability that ensured that otherwise laddish young men who wanted to sound like pound-shop Oscar Wildes could be heard singing ‘Now you can tell some lies, about the good times that we’ve had/But I’ve kissed your mother twice, and now I’m working on your dad’.

As with so much great rock music, the primary lyrical concern was that of escape

As with so much great rock music, the primary lyrical concern was that of escape. The album’s first song, ‘Mis-Shapes’, explicitly placed Cocker on the side of the misfits and weirdos who had for so long been ignored or marginalised under successive Conservative governments. Yet just as Morrissey sang on ‘Cemetery Gates’ that ‘Keats and Yeats are on your side, but Wilde is on mine’, so Cocker allied himself with a new movement that would be dominated by wit and intelligence rather than wealth and privilege, singing ‘Brothers, sisters, can’t you see/The future’s owned by you and me’, and ‘We won’t use guns, we won’t use bombs, we’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of/And that’s our minds’.

As a statement of intent, set to a pounding, thumping beat that vaguely recalled Roxy Music and David Bowie while remaining entirely its own entity, it was a fine manifesto for a disillusioned generation waking up to the possibility of hope under an imminent New Labour government. And it led to Cocker, in particular, becoming a totem for those who had never fitted in amongst their peers, the shy bespectacled boys and girls who had had to watch while their more popular friends and nemeses had gone on to greater success. These people now had a charismatic and popular champion. While it had often seemed as if his forbear Morrissey, for all of his apparent empathy with the outsider, was too distant and detached a figure to really care, Cocker seemed to actively thrive on identification with his audience. His rise to fame had been a long, slow slog, despite John Peel’s continued support, but now he was here, and here to stay. A triumphant Glastonbury headlining slot in 1995, replacing the Stone Roses, seemed to represent the zenith of his band’s fame. Just before a formidable performance of ‘Common People’, Cocker addressed his massed, adulatory audience. ‘Glastonbury, 25 years. Here’s to 25 more. Live on!’

He was talking about the festival, but, just as the much-anticipated 50th anniversary of Glastonbury this year was undone by unexpected events, so Pulp’s much-anticipated reign of success proved a short-lived and unhappy one. Cocker’s reaction to the sudden and much wished-for acquisition of fame was to throw himself into the chemical-fuelled demi-monde of Nineties ‘Cool Britannia’ London, becoming a ubiquitous figure on panel shows and at celebrity parties. He achieved notoriety during the BRIT awards in 1996 by invading the stage during Michael Jackson’s messianic performance of ‘Earth Song’ and disrupting the event by wiggling his backside at Jackson. He was arrested on suspicion of assault, and the media found themselves having to execute an embarrassing volte-face when the stories, briefed by the Jackson camp, that Cocker had leapt up on stage to assault the children who were adorning the set like ornaments proved to be false. His actions were in fact met with widespread approval from a public who had long since tired of Jackson’s humourless and creepy actions and who, like Cocker, felt that this ridiculous man could do with having his particular bubble punctured.

Nonetheless, it still chimed with a growing sense that Cocker, for so long an outsider at the party, was now firmly ensconced in the mainstream, and his acquisition of a film star girlfriend in the American actress Chloe Sevigny did nothing to dispel these beliefs. (In his defence, it is unlikely that many other millionaire rock stars and their paramours would have spent their days going to village fetes and jumble sales, as Cocker and Sevigny reportedly did. The relationship did not last.) Pulp’s next album, This is Hardcore, took as its lyrical theme Cocker’s disaffection with fame and modern life, and was a harsher and more challenging listen than the previous LPs, despite lush arrangements that owed a debt to Cocker’s idols John Barry and Serge Gainsbourg. It was a commercial disappointment compared to Different Class, and Pulp produced one final album, 2001’s excellent and still underrated We Love Life, and then, in a shrugging, nonchalant fashion, went their separate ways, allowing Cocker to embark on what was widely expected to be a glittering solo career.

To date, it has not been. His first album, 2006’s Jarvis, was greeted with critical acclaim but disappointing sales, as was his second, 2009’s Further Complications. I attended several of his gigs around then, and was struck by how the between-song banter was more entertaining and engaging than the songs, as Cocker had the wit and timing of the very finest stand-ups, even as he refused to give the audience a cheap thrill by playing Pulp music. A particular highlight came as he self-deprecatingly bemoaning his media status as ‘the Judi Dench of indie rock’. (‘I think they meant the Alan Bennett, surely.’) Yet the music simply wasn’t as good or engaging as in the Pulp heyday, although several of the songs – ‘I Will Kill Again’, ‘Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time’ – demonstrated Cocker’s remarkable skill and wit as a lyricist, to say nothing of his ability to write a fine tune. But the market, it seemed, was uninterested in Jarvis Cocker, solo artist, and so his recording career was subsumed to guest appearances and side projects, until JARV IS.

Cocker has, of course, seldom been out of the public eye, reuniting with Pulp for a popular and lucrative series of concerts in 2011 and 2012 before allowing the band to return to dormancy again, or, in his words, ‘cruising off into the sunset’. Unlike his hero (and We Love Life producer) Scott Walker, he has managed to remain an engagingly relevant figure to his audience, whether as a Radio 6 DJ with Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service, as Editor-at-Large at Faber and Faber or as a ‘cultural ambassador’ to Eurostar. His solo song ‘Running The World’ with its refrain ‘Bluntly put, in the fewest of words/c*nts are still running the world’ was the target of an unsuccessful attempt by his admirers to become Christmas number 1 last year, in the wake of the Conservative election victory, but it eventually peaked at number 3: a space below ‘Common People’, which was beaten to the top spot in 1995 by Robson and Jerome’s cover of ‘Unchained Melody’.

Yet this most incisive and intelligent of commentators seems to have, once again, drifted to the side lines, hanging around at the periphery of the national conversation and offering witty and caustic commentary upon it. He was an admirer of Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps remembering his own wry lyrics in This is Hardcore’s song ‘Dishes’, ‘I am not Jesus, though I have the same initials/I am the man who stays at home and does the dishes’, and was disappointed by his defeat last year. He has shown no especial affection for Keir Starmer – ‘I don’t know enough about him’, he commented to one interviewer, before quipping ‘He seems to use Brylcreem, which is, y’know, not bad’ – and it seems unlikely that he will ever return to the forefront of popular culture once again. Which, I imagine, suits him fine.

And the role of a roving, rootless cultural ambassador is one that he is perfectly attuned to. The other day, I was sent the latest edition of the London Library’s magazine, and I was delighted to see a picture of a familiar bespectacled face surreptitiously looking out at the photographer from the library’s stacks, looking simultaneously alarmed and intrigued at the same time. I can only hope that, on my next visit to the library, I should hear a familiar Yorkshire accent mutter next to me ‘Do you believe that somewhere up above, they have a timetable directing acts of love?’ And then, as I turn around, startled but thrilled, I can imagine Cocker disappearing off into the ether, bound for some other encounter or adventure, whether or not it involves the kitchen sink.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover