For a while there, it was easy to wonder whether Jarvis Cocker would ever release another album.
Not that there was ever much predictability to his solo years to begin with. After Pulp disbanded in the early ’00s, Cocker considered quitting music — then Nancy Sinatra called him to write some songs, and he wound up making a solo debut. Released in 2006, that self-titled album made a certain amount of sense; it wasn’t far off from Cocker’s Britpop-era material, but filtered through a bit more ’70s singer-songwriter traditions. In 2009, Further Complications made for a surprising pairing, Cocker’s usual witticisms and sly vocals over guttural garage rock produced by Steve Albini; it didn’t exactly sound like Cocker’s most natural habitat, except for the narrative perfection of the lust that’s often coursed through his music curdling into middle-aged divorcee lasciviousness over more caustic instrumentation.
So maybe that would become the pattern. Every Jarvis Cocker album would be something totally different, each one a unique chapter in a career full of idiosyncrasies. Cocker’s entire arc, after all, already had twists: ’80s alternative origins abandoned for art school, turning 30 before Pulp’s breakthrough. Always bookish and brainy and off to the side of pop music, perhaps it’d only make sense he would continue to zig and zag further out of bounds as he entered middle age and found his voice as a solo artist. And then 11 years passed.
Cocker never went away. He got back together with Pulp for a triumphant reunion tour in the early ’10s, but only one new song materialized, one that dated back to the We Love Life sessions. In 2017, he released a collaborative album called Room 29 with Chilly Gonzalez, a concept record about the titular room at the Chateau Marmont that featured Cocker intoning over sparse piano arrangements. Every now and then he would pop up someplace, appearing in movies or editing books or on a radio show. He could have a wandering, artistic life. Maybe he didn’t need to release albums in the traditional manner.
But now we have Beyond The Pale. There have now been all these stretches of time where it seemed like Cocker was not in much of a rush to make music, and even when his new band JARV IS… took shape, that still seemed to be the case. He threw the group together quickly after getting a festival offer, and then embarked on a new idea: Maybe he could work out the songs he had with this group, on the road, and maybe that’s the only place it would exist. A band people had to come see to hear. Eventually, it turned into an album, one that doesn’t sound much like a long-awaited comeback at all.
Beyond The Pale, instead, is a haggard and meditative late-career album. It’s heartening to hear Cocker singing something adjacent to pop music again; his voice has thus far aged remarkably well. In some ways, he doesn’t sound 56, and he doesn’t sound like he’s been away for a long time at all. But there’s also a graininess to the album in almost every way: how its ideas unfold, the little hints of grit in Cocker’s vocals, the way the music feels like it’s been arranged carefully but almost in a way that allows it to remain free-associative. At only seven songs, Beyond The Pale still has scope. It feels like a lived-in document of everything Cocker’s been mulling over in all these years since he made a full-fledged solo album.
Each of the album’s advance singles have done something completely different. First there was “Must I Evolve?,” a shape-shifting psychedelic journey. “House Music All Night Long” took its title to offer a more weathered, aged update on the dance music that’s long influenced Cocker both aesthetically and thematically, and which defined some of Pulp’s most beloved songs. Then most recently there was “Save The Whale,” an opener and pseudo-title-track — Cocker sings “beyond the pale” in the chorus — that sets a bleak mood from the start while he channels ’80s Leonard Cohen.
Musically, the album just continues to spread out from there. Beyond The Pale has a whole lot more concepts and musical mutations flying around within it than a seven-song tracklist would suggest. Throughout, Cocker and his new band balance contrasts: big ideas and intimate portraits, ugly sounds right up against pretty ones. You can feel how these songs came to fruition, the fact that they were improvised and finished onstage, in real time, allowed to breathe and develop before ever being put into semi-permanent recorded form. In many instances, even while things have been corralled, the songs play as if they’re figuring out the destination with you as they go. That makes Beyond The Pale a kind of wandering listen. It also makes certain moments hit that much harder, like when “Am I Missing Something?” finally reaches its big refrain, or when the discomfiting lurch of “Sometimes I Am Pharaoh” locks into the chaotic ritual of its climax.
Music that fires off in so many directions is a fitting backdrop for Cocker’s lyrics. Beyond The Pale continually returns to the themes of evolution and extinction; “Must I Evolve?” traces microbes to cave paintings to the apparent zenith of human existence, drugged out in a field dancing to house music. Within that framework, the songs have room for all sorts of peculiar fascinations unique to Cocker. It’s one of those albums that could’ve only come from one person in particular.
Take “Sometimes I Am Pharaoh.” When Cocker lived in Paris, his place was near Sacré-Coeur, and he became interested not just in how people behave around holy sites, but the inner lives of the people who would show up and perform as human statues. The song is told from that perspective and has all these perversely funny lines, like “I watch you when you’re eating fried food in front of famous buildings.” It’s a creepy, clattering track; Cocker turns the exchange into something like surveillance or voyeurism. But as ever, he blends humor with these little incisive depictions of humanity, turning to a quieter and more haunting verse: “I sat next to a woman who asked if God was like a camera that automatically took a/ Picture if you sinned or were a sinner/ She took a photo of the altar although she knew it was forbidden/ Now she was frightened of damnation/ I said ‘Why don’t you repent then?’/ And then she started crying.” The whole song is this bizarre, masterful blend of banality and mortality.
Cocker’s always had a gift for this, wringing poignance from non-sequiturs and the sorts of little details only a certain artistic mind would register and return to. By the time “House Music All Night Long” came out, it was already positioned as an unexpected quarantine anthem, but the song was moving before that, too — the faded glimmer of parties long gone, the solitude of getting older and being alone at home yearning for connection. Despite its title, “Swanky Modes” is about a person who died, and the remembrances are pure Cocker, a tribute to someone lost by reminiscing about “the days of VHS and casual sex.” But then there’s this stanza towards the end: “Some fell by the wayside/ Some moved up to Teeside/ Some still scoring cocaine/ Some laid up with back pain/ Ain’t it sad when your dreams outlast you?/ The things you do to make life go faster/ Working on a ringtone/ Working on a masterplan.”
That’s what becomes most evocative about Beyond The Pale: the ways in which Cocker’s lyrics, sharp as ever, reflect his own aging and experiences within these recurring Big Picture references to human progress, human destruction, and the stupid little things we fill our time with otherwise. At the beginning of it all, “Save The Whale” alludes to those large-scale ideas, but also undercuts them with punchlines. Consider “We gone and founded a new civilization/ Now how much are we going to charge people for admission?” or what has to be one of the most creative and absurd come-ons in a career full of them, “You are a manifestation of the universe/ Your form is unimportant but please come over here.” And then at the end of it all, Cocker’s back in that headspace for “Children Of The Echo,” a disembodied dance track that constantly hints as if it’ll drift off into the air: “I am breathing/ I am dancing/ I am a product of all my ancestors both living and dead/ I have created an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful entity/ Who does not care about me one bit/ No, not one bit.”
The last couple years have been disorienting and depressing, to say the least. Beyond The Pale, with its concerns about humanity and its exploratory but world-weary instrumentation, could come across like a heavy document of those years, from a man approaching old age and looking back at the mess of it all. But Cocker flits amongst it all with his customary cleverness and agility. The whole thing sounds like a friend you haven’t seen in forever, returning and asking you to have a beer and shoot the shit about the collapse of civilization. He has a way of making you laugh at the absurdity and inevitability of everything and you’re struck by each observation he offers. It might not make you feel all that much better about the world outside, but then it’s good to see him again anyway.
Beyond The Pale is out 7/17 via Rough Trade. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Chicks’ long-awaited comeback Gaslighter.
• Illuminati Hotties’ fired-up “mixtape” Free IH: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For.
• Protomartyr’s characteristically and fittingly apocalyptic Ultimate Success Today.
• Nicolas Jaar’s latest installment in his prolific streak, Telas.
• Silverbacks’ great, addicting debut album Fad.
• Bing & Ruth’s meditative, entrancing Species.
• The Pretenders’ Stephen Street-produced Hate For Sale.
• The self-titled debut of Spice, the new project from Ceremony’s Ross Farrar.
• The self-titled debut of Crickets, a supergroup partially related to Le Tigre.
• Kllo’s sophomore outing Maybe We Could.
• Dehd’s also-sophomore-outing Flower Of Devotion.
• Blu & Exile’s first full-length collab in eight years, Miles: From An Interlude Called Life.
• Oliver Tree’s latest, Ugly Is Beautiful.
• Lianne La Havas’ new self-titled collection of folk-soul explorations.
• Zombi’s first new album in five years, 2020.
• (The actual) Lady A’s Lady A: Live in New Orleans.
• Ellie Goulding’s new one, Brightest Blue.
• Gang Of Four’s Anti Hero EP.
• Tei Shi’s Die 4 Ur Love EP.