JARV IS… | Beyond The Pale | (Rough Trade)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Jarvis Cocker is many things—frontman of 90s UK art/pop band Pulp is most obvious—but prolific isn’t one of them. This debut from his recent outfit, somewhat referencing his name, is the first new music he has created since 2009. That’s a long time to crank out nine original tunes totaling 40 minutes.
It’s hard to say what he has been doing in the interim, but listening to Leonard Cohen was on his agenda. That’s clear from the opening “Save the Whale” (some of whose lyrics form the disc’s title) where he recites the words over sparse, spooky electronic backing with the same airy baritone gravitas associated with Cohen’s distinctive delivery. Cocker admits as much in the disc’s promotional bio where he says the documentary Marianne & Leonard:Words of Love was a major influence.
The album gradually morphs out of Cohen mode as it progresses. Cocker’s five piece backing unit mixes moody techno textures with organic and more unusual ones (harp, violin) along with high profile female supporting vocals that shape-shift each track’s approach. Cocker balances talking and singing with a sure sense of drama, similar to Mark Lanegan’s work. Songs average five minutes which allows Cocker and his group to stretch out, adding elements of dreamy funk and soul, yet staying within the basic atmospheric art/pop format; less rock and more like subtle space funk.
There’s a sure sense of direction helped enormously by production that reigns in Cocker’s wilder impulses without squashing them. In that sense, JARV IS…feels like mid-period Bryan Ferry. He brings a slight disco/dance feel to the appropriately titled “House Music All Night Long” but just as easily morphs into David Bowie’s “Berlin years” style on the following artsy “Sometimes I Am Pharaoh” with the minor key, chilly aloofness Bowie brought to those albums.
Lyrically things are pretty murky (“I was born in the middle of the second verse/I’m not sure of all the words” he speaks on the closing “Children of the Echo”) but that doesn’t detract from the set’s overall dark, percussive and intricately arranged groove.
None of this breaks musical barriers. Still, Cocker’s assimilation of some obvious influences noted above hits a sweet spot that makes Beyond the Pale, some of which was apparently recorded live then enhanced with overdubs, impressive, often moving and hypnotic. Hopefully he can follow it up faster than the time it took to get here.