Recent listens to the solo albums of Britpop stars Brett Anderson, formerly of Suede, and Jarvis Cocker, ex-frontman of Pulp, provide a stark lesson in second acts. Anderson turns blue navel-gazing. His self-pity is depthless, yet not deep. One song is called "Love Is Dead," and, indeed, it sounds like it is. Meanwhile, Cocker sings on "Fat Children" of being murdered by hoodied teenage thugs in a scuffle over his cell phone, "with the pictures of the kiddies and the wife." It's hilarious and disturbing, set over a chunky, guitar-driven riff. Anderson's arch voice lays bare a soul best covered, while Cocker's arch voice take the piss out of stupid, obese children, their even worse parents, commodity culture, middle-class privilege, and the culture of fear. Welcome back, Jarvis.
Jarvis Cocker Showbox, 1426 First Ave., 628-3151, www.showboxonline.com. 8 p.m. $20 adv./$25 DOS. Mon., April 30.
Listen to a sample of Jarvis Cocker's "Fat Children."
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It seemed unlikely that he would return with the kind of glory that is evident on his latest, Jarvis. Mid-'90s Britpop had a particularly bright spot in Pulp. Cocker's insinuating baritone murmured and soared as he sang about bad habits, delusional dreams, class frustrations, and lust. The smart-ass in the natty clothes and outsize glasses, who gesticulates like Martha Graham and makes an impassioned case with even his most tongue-in-cheek lyrics, seemed a born cult artist who had crashed the party. It was a kind of vindication for outsiders.
After Pulp's final bow, the 2002 compilation Hits, Cocker moved to France, married, and became a father. He did podcasts reading J.D. Salinger and Icelandic folk tales. It was looking rather esoteric and cloistered for the man who had once rushed the stage at 1996's Brit Awards during one of Michael Jackson's Leni Riefenstahl–like militaristic displays and was arrested.
On the simply titled Jarvis, the 43-year-old defies lowered expectations. The comeback began in the summer with the download-only single "Running the World." It arrived with a video featuring the lyrics scrolling across the screen karaoke-style. The chorus goes: "Bluntly put in the fewest of words, cunts are still running the world." Meritocracy, the class system, productive lives, job exports, and hierarchies are disparaged repeatedly with his arch disdain.
Jarvis lives up to that burst of outrage and surpasses it, by turns sublime, campy, despairing, and sexy. Retaining only his long-standing collaborator Steve Mackey and adding Richard Hawley, the Mescaleros' Martin Slattery, and Ross Orton from the Fat Truckers, Cocker aims for a limber pop album, heavy on melody and catchy choruses. There are anthems, ballads, love songs, and indie jangle, all of it suffused with a kind of louche apocalypse.
There are plenty of character studies of men going wrong, a girl in "Big Julie" discovering the crassness of men young and old, and that "sex is something to do when you've run out of things to say," but there are also songs like "Disney Time, " "From A to I," and "Fat Children" that paint a very bleak picture of contemporary life. Their outlook is buoyed by contagious melodies drawn from Sixties MOR—"Black Magic" has a chorus straight out of Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover"—kitsch pop, and punky flare-ups.
Cocker's tone seems confessional throughout, but he's moving through mutable personae and poses. The trenchant songs move from accusation to empathy and back again. He knows better than to play it as an alien or a fugitive. He sings from inside and outside the experiences, so that the bile for maggotlike offspring of uncaring parents "without the sense to become flies" in "Fat Children" is handled deftly and with wit ("they wobbled menacingly under the yellow street light"). The ire also calls the song's narrator into question as much as the hoodlums who kill him.
On one of the album's best songs, "A to I," he takes on the decline and fall of the British Empire with the rhyming couplet: "It's the end, why don't you admit it/It's the same from Auschwitz to Ipswich." It's a resigned plea; Cocker knows it means nothing, ultimately. It's a protest pop song, which is like a pearl-handled letter opener stabbing into a giant's ankle. Like the profane chorus of "Running the World," it may get a rise out of someone somewhere, but it's also undeniably true.