Review: Jarv Is… – Beyond the Pale

It is perhaps trenchant that Beyond the Pale has arrived right at the trough between the peak of the first and imminent second waves of COVID. Jarvis Cocker always did have an impeccable sense of timing. As the hazy memories of the Indian summer of lockdown fade and the harsh clouds of economic collapse gather we could all do with some distraction and entertainment.

Enter Jarvis. Ably assisted by Serafina Steer (harp, keyboards, vocals), Emma Smith (violin, guitar vocals), AndrewMcKinney (bass, vocals), Jason Buckle (synthesiser & electronic treatments) and Adam Betts (drums, percussion, vocals), Beyond the Pale is a seven-track album that demands and repays repeated listening.

In the same way that Paul McCartney will always be an ex-Beatle, most people who come to Jarvis will do through their knowledge of Pulp – the Sheffield group who hung around for ages without doing anything much before giving Britpop the soundtrack that it deserved. Unlike Paul McCartney, however, Cocker’s solo work (always done with full props to his collaborators) has been uniformly excellent, avoiding the detours into twee nonsense and lazy homilies that the finest melodic ear and most inventive composer of the 60s has always been prey to. Let us not forget that the Beatle who wrote the timeless Here, There and Everywhere also wrote Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, or that the solo artist who wrote Band on the Run also wrote The Frog Chorus.  

Actually, no. Let’s try and forget that.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that Jarvis and Pulp were claimed for Britpop – that weird, strange musical movement that celebrated the now by retreating thirty years into the past and staying there. After all, it was little more than a karaoke movement that tried to recreate the sixties by copying everything from the riffs to the clothes to the drugs. All good clean fun, of course, but it missed the point: you can’t recreate the Big Bang with corner-shop fireworks. Pulp had anthems that fit the template perfectly. What they brought to the party that was largely missed was the depth, the humour, the social commentary and the irony of it all. In doing so, what was also missed (beyond the odd cliché about the Steel City) was that Pulp were a musical manifestation of Sheffield’s fractured psyche at the time – a place capable of being astonishingly egalitarian, progressive and forward-thinking at the same time as being reactionary, pig-headed and tied to and defined by its past at the expense of its future. The internal dynamics of Sheff and its citizens were there in the lyrics and the concerns: sex and lust amid cramped terraces and close communities in Disco 2000; class, money and aspiration in Common People; trying to escape everyday drudgery in E’s and Whizz only to find that no matter how high you get, you’re still you. It was understandable then. The city and its sensibilities formed the band and theirs. There was full employment in Sheffield in the sixties. By the nineties, Orgreave and Hillsborough were living memories rather than ongoing symbols of the Establishment’s determination to prevent justice being done; the coal and the steel had gone; and South Yorkshire was caught between its illustrious but hard-won past and an uncertain future in a difficult present. Like all giants brought low, it was struggling with its new identity. Jarvis has long since gone, but despite Sheffield’s emergence over the last two decades, these tensions still play out across the city and in his music.

Pulp were a musical manifestation of Sheffield’s fractured psyche at the time – a place capable of being astonishingly egalitarian, progressive and forward-thinking at the same time as being reactionary, pig-headed and tied to and defined by its past at the expense of its future

A decade in Sheffield among its magnificent people and marvellous music has led me to wonder if the city’s plural identities, myriad turns of phrase and diversity of personalities are reflected in its musical outputs more than any other UK place. Sheffield’s artists produce a refreshing lack of moon / June / spoon-type place-holding. There is instead a love of the rich, redolent word, the telling phrase and the punchline. There is also a love of storytelling at odds with the myth of Yorkshire being as tight with its words and emotions as it is its brass. These qualities are evident in a musical heritage running from The Human League through to the Monkeys to Hawley and beyond to countless others. Cocker has always had these qualities in spades and they’re on full display here.

Pulp’s melodic sense was well-served by Cocker’s eye for a line and telling vignette. On Beyond The Pale, however, he outdoes himself. He writes from the same linguistic place as Cohen and Dylan – obvious influences – but where they have a tendency to self-absorbed abstraction, perhaps because they lack true personal roots in America’s wide-open spaces and boundless possibilities, Cocker has always dealt in ‘mundane reality’, befitting a son of South Yorks. While Dylan’s latest has, rightly, been lauded, the laconic wit, dry asides, wry humour and sly allusions tend to tumble out without a connecting thread or satisfying resolution. It is like listening to someone else’s Ayahuasca or psilocybin journey: entertaining, but you’re on the outside looking in.

By contrast, Cocker’s love of narrative and connection is evident. From the difficulties of personal growth (Must I Evolve?) to dancing alone at home while the object of your affection is out on the town (House Music All Night Long) to the sinister risks of visiting places in the age of terrorism and global pandemics (Sometimes I Am Pharaoh) there is always a punchline to the set-up. These are not Dylan Thomas’s great lines in search of a poem. These are great lines inexorably building to points not simply well-made, but well-made with wit, élan, and quite brilliant turns of phrase. There are too many to pick out: I don’t want to dance with the devil, but do you mind if I tap my foot? (Am I Missing Something?); I can resist gentrification but I cannot resist temptation (Swanky Modes); and the quite wonderful I was born in the middle of the second verse, all my life I’ve tried to sing along, I’m not quite sure of all the words, but I haven’t got a clue just who wrote the song, Children of the Echo’s mordant reference to the echo chamber world of algorithms we live in. How can we know who we are and where we’re going when all we are endlessly fed back is ourselves and the past? There are puns, call-backs and cultural declensions and subversions in excelsis and abundance – all of them operating at a level other artists would kill for.

Who else would link a meditation on personal growth, its difficulties and challenges, by going back to cell mitosis and meiosis in the primordial ooze in Must I Evolve? The epic ascent of man from single-celled organisms to the discovery of fire juxtaposed with the narrator’s difficulties in fitting into modern society – followed by a nimble leap and link to the endless circularity of pop culture via a reference to The Spencer Davis Group’s Gimme Some Lovin’. When Cocker sings I’m So Glad We Made it, So Glad We Made It … you wonder if he truly is. After all, as the narrator points out, the gap between the prehistoric swamp and modern society isn’t that far: in both instances, we’re Back in the Stone Age.

There is genius at work in Beyond the Pale – an overused word in pop. In fact, that whole sentence is an overused sentence in pop criticism, but in the case of Jarvis, Serafina, Emma, Andrew, Jason and Adam it is warranted. It is warranted because none of the wit would matter if the tunes weren’t also fantastic. While their peers uniformly trudge back to musical conservatism in search of lost glories, Cocker et al effortlessly surf the interface between the energy of live performance and the possibilities offered by electronic programming and digital flexibility. There are melodies, arrangements and hooks here as strong, inventive and brilliant as any that Pulp are remembered for and lauded in their imperial phase – this is music for Friday night and Sunday morning; for the individual and the collective; for the heart and the head. Give it a chance and you’ll still be listening and hearing new things years from now.

There’s a natural inclination when writing about local heroes to tie them to their hometowns. Natural, but perhaps sometimes misguided. If they reach a certain level of success, artists will always leave their hometown, the urge that made them seekers compelling them to head into the wide world beyond its borders. Nevertheless, although Cocker has done this, heading via London and Paris irrevocably outwards, Sheffield remains in him. No other person and no other city could have produced this album.

The way we listen to albums has changed, perhaps irrevocably. They used to be part of our lives, accompanying getting ready for a Friday night out as well as the drive to work on a Monday morning. From them we’d have the bangers that we shared with the rest of the pub or entered into blessed communion with alongside the like-minded and converted in the darkness of a club and the songs that spoke privately to us in our reflective moments. Albums lasted for years, changing with us. Now, albums are calling cards to announce that an artist is touring (good luck with that post-Covid), content for the content mills, leverage to pressure the point of release to try and garner some paid downloads in a world of free streams. They’re collections envisaged and sequenced by the artist to be cohesive that we then atomise by cherry-picking tracks from them for our own playlists.

Make no mistake, though. This is not a Luddite mourning the dead past. This is not nostalgia for a golden age that was only ever brass. This is not wishing the present and the future away. This is a cracking album.

Highly recommended.

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