Beyond the Pale
Jarvis Cocker’s band Pulp might have been one of the defining groups of the mid-’90s Britpop era, but there was something distinctly different about them. In a sea of bands fixated on the past, Pulp’s landmark 1995 album Different Class was, musically and lyrically, a step forward. They weren’t the only band taking a critical look at British society, but Cocker was constantly turning his gaze inward. In his songwriting, relationships were messy, memories weren’t always to be trusted, the drugs often had the opposite of their intended effect, and even the losers got lucky—more than just sometimes. On two albums to follow, the Sheffield group would cut further left—and Cocker would go on to explore many more avenues of expression. Two solo albums in 2006 and 2009 (as well as writing most of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s beautiful 5:55) only further showcased his range—and that’s before he occupied himself as a book editor, a BBC radio host, and, during the COVID-19 shutdown, a housebound orator of great literary works. (Google “Jarvis Cocker’s Bedtime Stories” to hear his soothing baritone recite Brautigan and Salinger.)
On the heels of his collaborative project with Chilly Gonzales, 2017’s Room 29, Cocker was invited by Sigur Rós to perform at a festival in Reykjavík. He quickly assembled an entirely new London-based group of musicians to work through song sketches he’d developed over the last few years, which became the band-in-progress JARV IS…—emphasis on those three trailing dots. “Usually you put that into a sentence when you are implying that something isn't quite finished,” Cocker tells Apple Music. “The whole point of this band was to finish off these ideas for songs that I'd had for quite a long time but wasn't able to bring to fruition on my own.” At a trim seven songs, Beyond the Pale still manages to explore a range of themes, most of which revolve around the modern human condition—from aging to FOMO and self-doubt to living in the wake of a bygone era. Evolution plays a big part, too—not just in the subject matter, but in how the music took shape: “Because we were doing this experiment of trying to finish off a record by playing it to people, it seemed logical that we should record the shows so we could see how we were getting on,” he says of what would become “Must I Evolve?”, which was recorded live in an actual cave in Castleton, Derbyshire. “A light bulb went off in my head then, because that's every artist's dream, really—to make a record without even realizing it. To not go through that self-conscious phase where you go into a studio and start questioning things and the song gets away from you.” Here, Cocker tells us how the rest of the songs came together.
Save the Whale "You're not the first person to say there's a similarity to Leonard Cohen, which I take as a massive compliment, because he's really been an artistic touchstone for me, all through my career. There are some artists that show you different ideas of what a song can be, and open up your perceptions of what a song can be. Especially for someone like me, who was basically brought up on pop radio, which lyrically isn't very adventurous. So what Leonard Cohen did with words in songs was something that really had an effect on me. But what's exciting for me was all the time that I was in Pulp, I was the only person in the band who sang. And in this band, basically everybody sings, especially Serafina [Steer, harpist] and Emma [Smith, violinist/guitarist]. Rather than it being a monologue, I can tie in other viewpoints with what they say. And sometimes it will reinforce it, sometimes it will undercut it, sometimes it will just comment on it. And it's a lot of fun writing that way, because suddenly you're writing a dialogue or conversation rather than just me, me, me all the time."
Must I Evolve? "The starting point for it was me thinking about the development of a relationship, from meeting someone to moving in with them and stuff like that. You could draw a parallel with evolution itself, of two cells splitting and then those cells divide more and then you start to get organisms and eventually you've got some fish and then the fish grows legs and somehow comes out... I guess I was just remembering biology textbooks from school. The idea of the ascendant man, stuff like that. The Big Bang. That was a bit of a joke I had with myself, with the meanings of 'bang.' Banging, like 'Who've been banging lately,' and the Big Bang that started the whole of human creation off. Two of the longest songs on the record are questions: 'Must I Evolve?' and 'Am I Missing Something?' I guess I'm at an age where I ask myself those kind of questions, and the songs were some type of attempt on my part to answer those questions. But this really was the key song because it was the first one that we finished and released, and also the call-and-response theme came from this song, because I'd already written the 'Must I evolve? Must I change? Must I develop?' But there was no answer to that. We were just rehearsing and I think it was Serafina started going, 'Yes, yes, yes,' I think as a bit of a joke. And then I thought, 'That's such a great idea, let's just do that.' That totally added a new dimension to the song."
Am I Missing Something? "It's in that tradition, I suppose, of those long songs where it very directly addresses the listener. This is the oldest song on the record; the lyrics were written pretty much eight years ago. I wanted to try a bit of a different approach, and so the lyrics aren't so much a through narrative; it's not just one story. It jumps around a bit. And that seemed appropriate because it's about this idea of 'Am I missing something?' It could mean there's something really interesting going on but I don't know about it, which is like a modern disease: Too many entertainment and information options to choose from. It can also be like, 'Do I lack something? Is there something missing in me? Do I need to fill some gaping psychological hole within myself or whatever?' Or actually, ‘Am I overlooking something, am I not getting something?’ That's a really important part of a song, that you have to leave some space in it for the person listening to do what they want with it.”
House Music All Night Long "People have said, ‘Yes, it's a COVID anthem,’ but it wasn't conceived in that way at all. For a start, it was written two years ago before anybody was really thinking about any pandemic. It was really just one weekend where I was stuck in London. It was a very hot weekend and everyone I knew had left town. I was in this house on my own and some friends had gone to a house music festival in Wales and I was jealous of that. I was having—people call it FOMO, don't they? I just thought to myself, 'Don't just sit here feeling sorry for yourself, do something to get yourself out of this trough you've found yourself in.' So I remembered that there was a secondhand keyboard that I'd bought from a street market just a few weeks before and it was down in the basement of this house. So I went and found it, brought it up, plugged it in, put it through an amp, and just started trying to write bits of music. I came up with the chord pattern that the song starts off with, and because this keyboard—it's an old string machine, so it's got a quite naive sound to it, which reminded me of some of those early house records where they would use big, almost symphonic-sounding things but on really crap keyboards. The first chord change really reminded me of something like 'Promised Land' by Joe Smooth or something like that. So maybe it was because I was thinking about my friends who were having a good time at a rave. Again, once I've got that idea of the two meanings of 'house'—like, house music and then 'house' as in a building that you live in. I was stuck in a house feeling sorry for myself whilst my friends were out dancing to house, probably having a great time, as far as I was imagining. And so then the song had already half written itself once I got those basic ideas down."
Sometimes I Am Pharaoh "I developed a fascination with these street entertainers—human statues. You tend to get them outside famous buildings or in tourist hotspots. So you either get somebody dressed up as Charlie Chaplin—that's why it's 'Sometimes I'm Pharaoh/Sometimes I'm Chaplin.' And they stand still and then a crowd gathers and eventually they move and everybody screams and hopefully gives them some money. It died out a little bit in more recent years. They’ve been superseded slightly by those levitating guys—have you seen those ones? Where it's like Yoda floating, and he's holding a stick but obviously the stick—there's some kind of platform under him. And I feel sorry for the statue guys, because the levitating Yoda, it's just like, anybody could do that. You just go and buy the weird frame—which has obviously got some kind of really heavy base so that it doesn't topple over—and you're in business. Whereas to actually stand still for hours on end must be really difficult. I was just showing some respect and love to the people that were doing that."
Swanky Modes "My son [who lives in France] goes to this once-a-week rock school. It's run by a guy from Brooklyn who moved over to Paris. I've become friendly with him, and he asked me if I would come to the class and help the kids write a song in the space of an hour or something. So we met to talk about how that could work, and then we're jamming around and he was playing the piano and I was messing around on the bass and then we started playing what became 'Swanky Modes,' which is really not a kids' song at all. The piano that you hear on the record is him, Jason Domnarski. And the first half of the song has got my bass playing on it. So it's almost like a field recording. This is probably the most narrative-driven song on the record. Somehow all these events that happened to me at very specific periods of time, which was when I was living in Camden in London, just towards the end of my time at Saint Martins art college, so we're talking about 1991. I was only living there for maybe eight months, and all these images from my time of living there suddenly came into my mind really, really clearly. The title of the song, 'Swanky Modes,' it's the name of the shop. It was a women's clothes shop that was near where I was living at the time. Again, that's one of the mysteries of songwriting—why suddenly, almost 30 years later, these words would come to me that summed up a fairly minor chapter in my life. But it came back in really minute detail and I'm really glad it did, because now I'll never forget that period on my life, because I've got a souvenir of it."
Children of the Echo "A few years ago I was asked to write a review of a book called The John Lennon Letters. I'm a Beatles fan, and particularly of John Lennon, so I thought if John Lennon wrote lots of letters, I'd really like to see them. So I was sent an advance copy of the book, and it was just weird. They weren't letters. Some of them were just 'Tell Dave to get lasagna from supermarket. Walk dog.' They were just to-do notes, like a Post-it note that you would put on your refrigerator to remind you to do something. They weren't letters. So I was really, really disappointed with this book, so I tried to express this in the review. And this phrase 'children of the echo' came into my mind, which in the context of the article was talking about how someone in my position—I can't really remember The Beatles, because I was a kid. I was born in 1963, when they first broke through, and then they broke up in 1970 when I was seven. They were there, but I couldn't really be actively a fan or anything like that. But they left such a mark and they made such an impact that the ripples obviously were coming out and affected everybody a lot. And this made me think of this idea of an echo, of a sound which would be like The Beatles, this amazing sound that changed everything. And then I consider myself to be a child of the echo because I was brought up in the aftermath of that. And I was thinking, 'Well, we've got to get beyond that,' because that was the problem with that thing that got called Britpop in the UK—that it was so in thrall to the '60s and The Beatles in particular that it killed it. It stopped it from being what could've been a really forward-thinking and exciting and innovative thing into a retro thing. And you can't make another period of history happen again, it's just impossible. It seemed like it was exciting, and 'here we come, here's the revolution, the world's going to change.' And then it just went into this horrible nostalgic morass of nothing. That's when I jumped ship. I think now it's so long ago that there is a chance now to do something new, because we have to transcend the echo now, we have to make another thing happen. We can't keep living on this echo that gets fainter and fainter and fainter and fainter. Because there's nothing to live on anymore."