CD: Jarvis Cocker, Jarvis

Our guest editor's debut solo album is suffused with the fear of 21st century Britain, and is all the better for it, says Jon Savage

In which the protagonist, having suffered success and its evil twin, notoriety, returns to his former spritely shape. The cover says it all: that instantly identifiable body outline, all knees and elbows, angles and splayed wrists, at once comic and haunted, trapped in a monochrome world that he never made. But behind those Seventies' goggle-boxes, the eyes are undimmed. For all those who regard Sheffield's transplanted boulvevardier with interest if not outright affection, Jarvis is a welcome return to form.

Retold by the current Pulp reissues, the back-story is familiar. Terminal geeks crash the Britpop party through a winning mixture of talent, solidarity, persistence and luck. Their front man becomes a celebrity by acting out what everyone thought about Michael Jackson's absurd display at the 1996 Brits: suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous celebrity and becomes, in his own words, 'a tool'. The ultimate outsider becomes a self-loathing insider, loses his mojo, and appears set on a course of reactive irrelevance.

Well, the dandy is back. Jarvis is an immediate sonic relief after the hints of turgidity that marred the last two Pulp albums. Retaining only his long-standing collaborator Steve Mackey and adding the Mercury-nominated Richard Hawley, the Mescaleros' Martin Slattery and Ross Orton from the Fat Truckers, Cocker has opted for a light, limber, melodic approach. Widescreen rock mashes up against short piano pieces, indie jangle, punk thrash and intimate ballads, in a constant dialectic that lasts the length of the record.

So the big rock of 'Don't Let Him Waste Your Time', a heartfelt piece of advice to a female friend, segues into the awe-struck sentiments of 'Black Magic', set to a chorus lifted straight from Tommy James's 1969 psych/pop classic, 'Crimson and Clover'. 'Heavy Weather' mixes storm noises with a stirring Rickenbacker surge to counterpoint the old 'I Can't Stand the Rain' mood-matches-climate trope. The sinister banality of 'I Will Kill Again' is followed by the simple, heartfelt joy of 'Baby's Coming Back to Me'.

Jarvis's delight in Sixties MOR, kitsch and outre electronica only serves to highlight his fugitive, mutable persona. He is at once alien and earthy, tender and harsh, empathetic yet accusatory, concerned about the world and the state of people within it yet fascinated by the mundanity of everyday life in the most unglamorous of districts - like the Tottenham of 'Fat Children'. But even here, current affairs obtrude: the police ignore a murder victim because they're off 'putting bullets in some guy's head for no particular reason'.

Jarvis is saturated in today's fear culture. The individual terror explored in Pulp's This is Hardcore has become a climate. 'From A to I' unfavourably compares this consumerist generation to their parents before offering an antidote to all the presentiments of doom: 'If you take a look inside yourself, maybe you'll find something there'. On 'Disney Time', he asks, 'How can you tell the children that everything's going to be just fine?' 'Quantum Leap' offers the climactic affirmation: 'the force that binds the universe together: everything's going to be alright'.

Beautifully sequenced, Jarvis makes the case for albums as opposed to downloads: it begins, walks the high-wire between light and dark with outraged grace, and resolves itself within space and uplift. Then you wait a good 25 minutes for the hidden track, 'Running the World', which, as if to subvert any previous hints of maturity, amply fulfils the Four Tenets of Rock: Raucousness, Rudeness, Banality and Aimless Protest. So who exactly is Jarvis? Long may he keep himself and his audience guessing.

Recommended: 'Don't Let Him Waste Your Time'; 'I Will Kill Again'; 'From A to I'


Jon Savage

The GuardianTramp

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