“I don’t usually make any notes before we play because I think that you should always be spontaneous onstage, you know what I mean? I think you should come on and be in the moment. We come on…we do our thing, and we see what you make of it and then it comes back to us and it’s something that happens.”
Jarvis Cocker, Glastonbury 1995
25 years on, Jarvis Cocker has finally taken that statement to its logical conclusion. Not on his own, mind – despite a band name derived from his first name, Jarv Is… is very much a band, featuring (amongst others) acclaimed multi-instrumentalist solo artist Serafina Steer. Originally designed as a live project, Jarv Is… would write the songs onstage in collaboration with the audience. Watching the reactions, following the crowd. Evolving. Doing their thing, seeing what you make of it, if you will. At some point, they started recording those live shows, and ultimately those recordings became the basis for this album. An album designed to capture a moment, but it’s hard not to contemplate the passing of time. It’s been 25 years since that statement, at a performance that marked the start of Pulp’s imperial phase. If you’re old enough to have been 15 during that imperial phase, it’s hard to listen to an album fronted by Jarvis Cocker and be objective about it. There’s a lingering affection that just won’t shake off. You can insist you’re finally putting youth away in a box somewhere, but those records are too insistent, too irresistible, too…fucking…good.
But there are warning signs. It’s risky. An album based on improvised live shows sounds like a terrible idea, right? The horror! Each band member taking a turn to solo endlessly, no-one sure what they’re doing, songs outstaying their welcome. And above all: the endless self-indulgence. The fear that while it might be fun for the performers, it might not make a satisfactory listening experience at home.
Any worries are misguided. This is Cocker doing what he’s best at: telling stories. The lyrics – or the rough structure of the lyrics – were one of the few things planned in advance. As a consequence, Jarv Is… have pulled off that rarest of feats. Yes, each track started as an improvisation, but the songs still develop around the singer, with instrumentalists uniting to emphasise punchlines or dramatic points. Consistently subtle, always supporting the story. A perfect pop music / audiobook hybrid. Stories with choruses. Suitably the vocals are upfront and centre, mixed so Jarvis’ voice is almost uncomfortably close in a manner not dissimilar to late period Leonard Cohen. This is most evident on opener ‘Save The Whale’, which sounds like a beefier version of something from You Want It Darker. The subject of those stories will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever heard Pulp. “This body is a temporary home / this body wants to take your body home” from ‘Am I Missing Something’ stands out in particular, but acknowledging the onset of middle age in a way that remains universal: ‘House Music All Night Long’ paints a picture of life under lockdown despite being written long before. The downtrodden delivery of the line “This is one nation under a roof/Ain’t that the truth” triggers an unintended anxiety. Even as restrictions ease, there’s a fear that this is only temporary.
Musically, longstanding influences like Serge Gainsbourg and Cohen blend with 70s German motorik, late 80s house and synthpop. Closer ‘Children of the Echo’ somehow sounds reminiscent of Gainsbourg’s 69 année érotique and Talk Talk’s peerless Life’s What You Make It but without sounding like either. It’s fab.
Given Pulp formed in 1978, Jarvis has been making records on and off for 42 years. 42 years. Forty. Two. It’s a very rare thing to find someone 42 years into their career still making records that sound this vital, this gloriously alive. Credit to Serafina Steer, Emma Smith, Andrew McKinney, Jason Buckle and Adam Betts: Jarv Is… is a band, and between them they’ve made one of the best albums of 2020.
Review by Steve Horry