Britpop legend releases performance-based debut with new project
Having nearly single-handedly defined mid-‘90s Britpop as the frontman of Pulp, there isn’t much Jarvis Cocker hasn’t done. Following a couple solo albums, both met with mixed reviews, Cocker returns to the spotlight with his newest project, JARV IS…, and their debut album, Beyond the Pale.
Originally, Cocker and the band’s five other multi-instrumentalists, Serafina Steer, Emma Smith, Andrew McKinney, Jason Buckle and Adam Betts, joined forces for one festival date at the end of 2017. One performance quickly multiplied and the band took on the mission of “writing songs in collaboration with an audience,” according to Rough Trade Records.
Although the streamlined production on Beyond the Pale would never suggest it, a majority of the songs were recorded during live performances and they were later tuned up in the studio. At the end of debut single “Must I Evolve?,” there’s the faint sound of an audience’s applause. The band doesn’t refer to this as a live album, however. They coin the term, considering it an “alive” album. This unique recording technique where the songs live in the liminal space between live recordings and studio recordings is perhaps what makes Beyond the Pale Cocker’s best work since Pulp.
Opener, “Save the Whale,” features Cocker coming in strong with what could easily be a tribute to Leonard Cohen. Between heavenly backing vocals, plenty of synth and driving beats, this track is an excellent introduction to both the project as a whole and this particular album. It also nicely outlines the thesis of Beyond the Pale: “Embrace the darkness and all it entails/ Move beyond the pale.”
It’s followed by psych rock, David Bowie-esque single “Must I Evolve?,” which expands the band’s sonic texture immensely. Throughout the song, Cocker poses rhetorical questions to which the backing vocals answer in a fun, experimental call and response. Out of all the songs on the album, this is the standout and understandably was a no-brainer for lead single.
“Am I Missing Something” showcases quintessential Cocker lyricism with lines like “I don’t want to dance with the devil/ But do you mind if I tap my foot,” interwoven with whistles and laughs. It’s relaxed and carefree in a way that only live performances can truly embody. In terms of live performances, however, when shows finally return, “House Music All Night Long” will be the one song people won’t want to miss. A relatable anthem with electronic elements and incredible backing vocals, this track practically begs to be played live, even if only for the way Cocker impossibly rhymes “claustrophobia” with “disrobing ya.”
The back half of the album is where things bog down a bit. With only seven tracks, yet still clocking in with a 40-minute runtime, some of the songs drag on just slightly too long. “Sometimes I Am Pharaoh,” which is structured like an EDM song with dance beats and drops, along with “Swanky Modes,” a more melodic tribute to an old Camden shop, are both perfect examples of this. They’re decent songs with solid structure and hooks, but they’d benefit from a little fat trimming here and there.
Closer, “Children Of The Echo,” does brilliant work of bringing everything full circle. Jazzy with a funky bass line, the last minute or so of this song is where the sound finally opens up and swallows listeners whole. By the end, it’s difficult not to be left wanting more.
JARV IS… is not another solo vehicle for Cocker. Perhaps that’s why it functions so well. Rounded out with an immensely talented group of instrumentalists, this entirely new and refreshing project adds to Cocker’s canon, rather than detracting from it. Beyond the Pale is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for Pulp’s legendary former frontman.