There’s always been something strangely soothing about Jarvis Cocker. It’s more than just familiarity, though the 30-odd years he spent fronting Pulp certainly cemented him in the public consciousness. Yes, it’s that balmy baritone with its warm notes of suburban Sheffield, and his – to date unmatched – ability to dismantle bullshit with the very drollest of couplets. But mostly it’s the 56-year-old’s restless drive and continued willingness to diversify and adapt, despite the draw of the quick, nostalgic buck.
Following a successful stint in radio at BBC 6Music, and 2017’s collaborative release with Chilly Gonzales, ‘Beyond The Pale’ marks Cocker’s return to the coalface of indie-pop, with a brand new band and a novel creative ethos. Originally assembled at short notice for a 2017 show supporting Sigur Rós, JARV IS is now a fully collaborative six-piece featuring acclaimed harpist/singer-songwriter Serafina Steer and her Bas Jan-bandmate Emma Smith, plus members of the All Seeing I and Three Trapped Tigers. This debut is essentially a document of the last two years of live performances, featuring seven songs that were fully workshopped on the road and recorded in front of real audiences, albeit with minimal overdubs added later in the studio.
The result is a beautifully-paced collection that accurately captures the spirit of the band’s captivating live sets. Undulating opener ‘Save The Whale’ serves as a gentle introduction, with its pizzicato string riff, sub-aqueous xylophone notes and suspenseful interludes, while ‘Must I Evolve?’ is an exercise in controlled chaos, segueing from a trot to a canter within the first 45 seconds and climaxing six minutes later in a tumult of psychedelic textures. Weirdly prescient upon its release back in early March, ‘House Music All Night Long’ has since become the unofficial anthem of lockdown life, accurately capturing both the euphoria and claustrophobia of domestic discos across the country with a hypnotic arrangement of densely layered synths and pounding kick drum.
Throughout, there’s an engaging fluidity more akin to the excellent single ‘Sunrise’ from Pulp’s final album ‘We Love Life’ than to anything off Cocker’s two previous solo albums. Happily, for all its formal experimentation, ‘Beyond The Pale’ still feels comfortingly familiar, being packed with quintessentially Cocker-esque preoccupations, from furtive sex and various suburban ephemera to extended drug-fuelled episodes. But rather than simply lapsing into self-parody, the singer-songwriter takes full advantage of his unique vantage point and provides fresh perspectives in the process.
Packed with pathos, ‘Swanky Modes’ mediates on both “the shop-soiled life” and the transient nature of youth (“Some still scoring cocaine, some laid up with back pain”), and features the brilliantly banal exchange, “It turned out you lived above the shop and that’s why you worked there / No shit Sherlock.” On ‘Must I Evolve?’ he mocks humanity’s luddite tendencies, while brilliantly surreal album highlight ‘Sometimes I Am Pharoah’ is sung by a human statue secretly observing the anguishes of various tourists. At once amusingly absurd and strangely reassuring, ‘Beyond The Pale’ is perhaps the perfect balm for the continued weirdness of 2020.