Jarv Is… Beyond the Pale review – caveman Cocker rolls back the years

(Rough Trade)
The ex-Pulp frontman’s pell-mell search for connection – with our ancestors, our ageing selves and each other – is a pulsating, sleazy treat

If you’re not local to Sheffield, you might not know about Creswell Crags, a slim, verdant valley on the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border that was once home to successive bands of hunter-gatherers. Inhabited from the palaeolithic to the neolithic eras, these caves are home to some of the oldest known hominid art in Britain.

Jarvis Cocker – erstwhile Britpop roué, radio host and omnivorous autodidact – took his son there once. History does not record whether Albert was impressed by the accounts of animal pelts being cured with the cavemen’s own urine. But viewing the ancient wall daubings, and hearing the resonant cave echoes, the elder Cocker underwent a small epiphany. It led him to embark on a long, deep dive into the origins of human art, music and communication, reading archaeologist David Lewis-Williams’s The Mind in the Cave. Fast-forward to 2019, and those concerns – our connection to the ancestors – power Must I Evolve?, a pell-mell song about nothing less than the descent of man.

It announced what must now be the fifth coming of Cocker: after the pre-fame 80s Pulp, the band’s Britpop pomp, a stop-start solo Cocker, the Faber editor years, now a new incarnation – the singer-plus-ensemble who workshopped these seven songs into being, sometimes actually playing in caves.

With Cocker’s customary elan, Must I Evolve? describes how we all got from the big bang to a rave in a tunnel near the M25, where someone loses their drugs in a field. It asks, have we really come far at all? “Cars pass by, and the occasional badger,” notes Cocker, deadpan as ever. He knows full well, too, the scenic parallels here recall Pulp’s tune of 1995, Sorted for E’s and Wizz. A more grown-up echo exists as well: the cave and tunnel connections bring to mind the writer Robert Macfarlane’s Underland.

But for all this scope, this seven-minute mini-epic also encompasses the shorter arc of a lifespan, and personal change. It throws open an album about how a man on the far side of 55 can opine on our all-too-human folly and invoke Carl Jung, but detail shags on the kitchen worktop; how he can still pen pop tunes about dancing (House Music All Night Long). It is probably no accident, either, that the “puffing and panting” 56-year-old Cocker howls “Must I evolve?” and a Greek chorus of female backing musicians emphatically replies “Yes, yes, yes, yes!” to the male of the species.

Handily, pop’s veteran division provides notable previous practitioners. One reveals itself on opening track Save the Whale. Cocker comes in sounding exactly like Leonard Cohen, when the randy Buddhist of the early 90s favoured synthesisers and angelic backing vocals. “Embrace the darkness and all that it entails,” Cocker gargles.

There’s room, too, for an echo of David Bowie, on the swelling synth meditation Am I Missing Something? Cocker opens up his throat and projects dramatically: “Waiting for my sponsorship deal!”… Waiting for flares to come in again!” He does have much else to thank Bowie for. In a recent interview, Cocker points out it was footage shot by Bowie’s film crew at the 1996 Brit awards that exonerated him when, having invaded the stage during Michael Jackson’s performance, he was mistakenly arrested for assault.

Save the Whale pivots knowingly on a series of well-worn phrases – “touch the void, fight the power” – to which we might add plus ça change. For all the evolving happening here, the pizzicato plucking and heady scything by harpist Serafina Steer and violinist Emma Smith, Cocker is actually on prime, Pulp-level form on Beyond the Pale. Anyone pining for the arch twig-insect dandy of old, preening over driving beats and gyrating to wayward early electronics, will find much to love on this album.

Watch the video for Must I Evolve?

Even Pulp-free, a certain sonic signature remains: pulsating, nervy synths, and a leavening of blithe aural innocence – like those reedy female backing vocals and plinking keys – that exist in tension with all the sleaze and unease.

The marvellously creepy Sometimes I Am Pharaoh narrates scenes from the point of view of a living statue, an immobile stalker (“always I am watching”) who likes debating religion and making onlookers jump. The low-key ballad Swanky Modes burbles prettily, but its nauseous mixture of pity, lust, regret and lack of fulfilment could have been lifted from Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, an album about the fun – and the warping vacuity – of sex, drugs and stardom.

Wrapping it all up is Children of the Echo. Artists, of course, rehash what went before. (You hear that more and more the longer you are in the tooth, Cocker implies.) We’re all ultimately just rehashing all those cave echoes, as the song’s tongue clicks and spacey effects attest. We’re all just trying to connect.

Reverberations themselves fade over time, of course. “With diminishing returns,” whispers Cocker, glumly. You don’t want to contradict the steeltown sage, but Cocker’s assessment is premature. This is a great record: the first utterance, hopefully, of a new set of echoes.

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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