On the long-awaited sequel to Pulp's breakthrough album, Different Class, England's unofficial laureate Jarvis Cocker perfects his poetry of the prosaic. By Nick Hornby
This Is Hardcore (Island)
Just before the lights went down at the Radiohead show in London last November, a tall, thin, bespectacled man walked into the arena to take his seat. And a roar went up-or, at least, a delighted and genuinely affectionate squeal of excitement: "Jarvis! Jarvis is here!" In England right now, the declension goes like this: I love Jarvis, you love Jarvis, he/she/it loves Jarvis, we love Jarvis, they love Jarvis. It is difficult to imagine any other member of Britpop's aristocracy provoking the same reaction-I'm not sure the Gallaghers attract such warmth, and an audience that knows every word of "Creep" probably wouldn't muster much of a greeting for Baby Spice. But then, Jarvis Cocker isn't aristocracy. He's our pal, in much the same way Boy George was our pal: He's pop-star exotic, sure, and he's clearly very smart, but there's something leveling in there too, something representative.
At the beginning of "The Fear," the first song on Pulp's very wonderful new album This Is Hardcore, Cocker sings, "This is the sound of someone losing the plot / Making out that they're okay when they're not / You're gonna like it-but not a lot." It's a lyric that goes some way toward explaining Pulp's appeal in the U.K. For a start, it's resolutely English: The last line is a play on the catchphrase of an irredeemably uncool game-show host/magician named Paul Daniels, and you wouldn't catch any other pop musician in the entire history of the world conceding, even privately, that Paul Daniels exists. Cocker, however, lives in the same world as the rest of us, and admits as much without sounding too mundane or blowing his chic. That's no mean feat.
The other Jarvis characteristic that explains why people like rather than worship him, is that he is funny-a quality most musicians possess only unwittingly. Now, I've always had a problem with humor in music, mainly because it's invariably hopelessly disposable-how many times do you want to listen to a joke?-but Cocker's wit is capable of gear-changes beyond the reach of most social observers whose currency is the pop song. For a start, Pulp songs almost always contain, somewhere within them, at least a snatch of melody that makes you melt. And, more crucially, Cocker's jokes are always undershot with a kind of benign despair: "Help the Aged" begins with a wry twist ("One time they were just like you / Drinking, smoking, sex, and sniffing glue"), but by the climax-"You can dye your hair, but there's one thing you can't change"-the song is breaking your heart in ways you couldn't possibly have anticipated. On This Is Hardcore, Pulp make it clear they have outgrown Britpop and belong right up there with Ray Davies and Costello and Morrissey, those who look at England with a satirist's eye and a balladeer's heart.
If Cocker does have an eye on rock'n'roll posterity (and if he doesn't, why does the intro to "A Little Soul" pay homage to/rip off Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears"?), it might explain why the new album sounds slightly clunky in places. The band seems to be aiming for timelessness, both lyrically (there's nothing on this album as au courant as Different Class's rave-inspired "Sorted for E's and Wizz") and sonically, only to wind up sounding a bit dated. Where Different Class paid lip service to modern dance culture, This Is Hardcore occasionally reminds one why nobody listens to new wave albums anymore. In the U.K., new wave was the Boomtown Rats, Joe Jackson, Tom Robinson-mild punk rock with intelligence, sincerity, an organ, and a wearying tendency to write lame songs satirizing the power of the popular press. So it doesn't help that Cocker sounds most like Bob Geldof when he is trying to sound like David Bowie. New wave is a period of British pop that hasn't aged well, perhaps because it aimed for musical neutrality and ended up sounding merely anonymous. After all, what are you supposed to do with music you can't dance or drink to, cry or think about?
Jarvis Cocker is an acute and amusing chronicler of our life and times, and at the moment it is impossible to imagine a day when we will not be interested in his views on more or less anything. But sometimes-on this album's "Seductive Barry" and "Party Hard," for instance-you wish he'd communicate via chat show or letter rather than song. The worst thing music can do-music that has no postmodern intentions, at any rate-is draw attention to its own artifice, and that happens more than once here. It doesn't happen often enough to put anyone off, though, because a good eight of the 12 songs here are as addictive and as cute as pop music can be nowadays. If people love Jarvis, maybe it's because they feel the need for someone like him in their life: Who else is there who smiles back at you in quite the same way? "I'll read a story if it helps you sleep at night / I've got some matches if you ever need a light," he sings on "Dishes," a reluctant redeemer's plea for recognition of his limitations. The irony is, of course, that any performer capable of providing such basic human services is always going to inspire more affection than anybody has a right to expect.