If Arctic Monkey Alex Turner is the semi-ironic Elvis of Sheffield, Jarvis Cocker is the city’s Gainsbourg. As the talisman of Pulp, the nineties English band who've aged the best, he wrote songs soothed in wit and brittled with erotic honesty. Lyrics dragonfly between the city and the country, steel and flowers, as attuned to the Yorkshire badlands as the Chateau Marmont, the luxury LA hotel that inspired the new album he released last week – an ideal chance to reappraise his influence.
In a decade reductively defined by Britpop, Cocker was a natural heir to Morrissey, a fey, playful, literary Northerner who brushed black diamonds of pessimism with a humour some missed. Having formed in 1978, Pulp didn’t really break through until 1994 with their fourth albumHis’n’Hers, whose tone coalesced romantic nostalgia with a regret for things before they’d happened: while ‘Happy Endings’ shivers and swoons, ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’ bites and teases. The band won the Mercury Prize for their next albumDifferent Class, on which satire of poverty tourism (‘Common People’) meshed with low-key hedonism (‘Sorted For E’s and Whizz’).
Cocker’s voice onThis Is Hardcore, Pulp’s masterpiece, eroticizes even the least promising subjects (‘Seductive Barry’ might be the sexiest song they made). For their last studio album before they split, the Scott Walker-producedWe Love Life, Jarvis market-traded the urban for the pastoral, a summer field of sowthistles and cowslips seeded with weyrd-English absurdism. Beside the grassy cover art, the track-titles alone tell a grim narrative nature-cycle (‘Weeds I’, ‘Weeds II’, ‘Wickerman’, ‘The Trees’, ‘Birds In Your Garden’, ‘Roadkill’, ‘Sunrise’).
Noel Gallagher once admitted that lyrics were so low on his list of musical priorities that he often just chose words that had the right number of syllables to suit the tune. Not so Cocker, whose lyrics are so dense and evocative that Faber published a collection of them, blurbed with favourable comparisons to fellow Faber poets Larkin and Betjeman. In the pantheon of sex-lyricists, only Leonard Cohen (a hero of Cocker’s) comes close: “Still you’ve bought a toy to reach the place that he never goes”. Or: “She doesn’t have to go to work / But she doesn’t want to stay in bed / ‘Cos it’s changed from something comfortable / To something else instead”. Of his recent solo fare, the imagery of certain songs (‘Tearjerker’, ‘Salomé’) is more cryptic than others (‘Fuckingsong’, ‘Homewrecker!’), but here he is in his withering pomp, likening his ex’s new boyfriend to a ‘Bad Cover Version’ of himself:
“It's like a later Tom and Jerry
when the two of them could talk;
like the Stones since the eighties;
like the last days of Southfork
LikePlanet of the Apeson TV;
the second side of'Til the Band Comes In;
like an own-brand box of cornflakes
he's going to let you down my friend.”