The 90s have rightly been celebrated as an amazing decade for music. While America was going through it’s grunge phase, which was a direct response to the hair metal bands of the 80s, and its subsequent pop phase, which was a direct response to its grunge phase, overseas in the UK there was a movement of something called Brit Pop. This broad umbrella term for the bands and artists coming out of the UK at the time ranged from sophisticated pop to buzzy, angular guitar rock and out of it came some of the more exciting and influential artists of the era. One of the main players in that scene was Jarvis Cocker. Coming to fame through his band Pulp, Cocker crafted exciting and forward thinking pop music that was a more erudite and intellectual alternative to the other bands at the time. With his lanky, bespectacled frame and vintage suits, Cocker embraced a uniquely British melodramatic persona. Pulp broke up in 2001, after having sold over ten million albums worldwide, and took a decade off before reuniting for a series of festival shows in 2011. Since then Cocker has popped up here and there, releasing a handful of solo albums and being a mainstay on BBC Radio, hosting his weekly Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service. He’s now returned with a proper new band, JARV IS… , and an exciting new record, Beyond The Pale, that is as interesting as the story behind it. JARV IS… formed to play a show at the Sigur Ros “Norður og Niður” festival in Iceland at the very end of 2017. The idea was to craft an experience where the music would evolve in a live setting, a band that wouldn’t necessarily be an album project but one that people would have to see live to experience. Over the course of 2018, the group played festivals and shows around the world allowing their songs to evolve on stage in front of different audiences. They then took the recordings they made of these shows and used them as blueprints for the songs in the way they appear on the album. It’s a fascinating way to craft a record and because of the way it all came together there is an immediacy and excitement on display with Beyond The Pale that you don’t hear a lot of other records being produced these days.
At 56 years old Cocker seems to be embracing an “elder statesman of pop music” type persona. You can hear this in his almost spoken word delivery right off the bat with album opener “Save The Whale”. This later era Leonard Cohen vibe looks really good on Cocker. The band, consisting of Serafina Steer (harp, keyboards, vocals), Emma Smith (violin, guitar vocals), Andrew McKinney (bass,vocals), Jason Buckle (synthesiser & electronic treatments) & Adam Betts (drums,percussion,vocals), are all sharpshooters. Coming from improvisational jazz and classical backgrounds, the group creates the perfect soundscapes for Cocker’s dryly humorous observational lyrics. Each song on the album feels like a self contained journey rather than the whole endeavour painting one larger conceptual piece. “MUST I EVOLVE?” careens from a slight world music feel of the first half before the band ramps things up with a driving motorik beat and some piercing synth bits that deftly carry a counterpoint melodic part throughout. While Cocker asks himself “Must I Evolve?”. Steer, Smith. McKinney and Betts act as a greek chorus commenting on these existential questions that he asks himself. Previous single “House Music All Night Long” begins all 80s synth stabs and a backed up WAH pedal infused guitar. The song, about growing older and the perils of still trying to capture your youthful dreams and the sadness of letting them go, feels the most Pulp-y of the tracks on the record. “Swanky Modes” is a real treat for fans of Cocker’s unique storytelling perspective. Even when he was a younger man in Pulp, his lyrics had a worn out feel to them, coming from someone with a nostalgia of the way things used to be. The track is a perfect showcase for Cocker’s ironic and tongue in cheek vocal delivery while he sings lines espousing “The Good Old Days Of VHS and Casual Sex”.
Not that this has been an issue prior to Beyond The Pale but it’s so nice to hear that Cocker still sounds fresh and excited by the music he is crafting. While his voice may be a little more grizzled than it was in the past, it just feels like a natural part of his artistic evolution. By the time we get to the album’s closer “Children Of The Echo”, Cocker and company have taken us on quite the remarkable journey. There is a bit of “everything AND the kitchen sink” type of mentality on display here as the band takes us through a ton of different styles and genres but nothing feels unearned. The evolution of how and what Beyond The Pale became is quite an interesting concept and one that is felt all over the record. It is experimental and literate while also being fun, satisfying and a wonderful addition to Cocker’s entire musical oeuvre.
review by Adam Fink