“This is the sound of someone losing the plot,” Jarvis Cocker sang with characteristic self-awareness on the title track to This Is Hardcore, the notoriously dark 1998 sequel to Pulp’s career-capping 1995 U.K. smash Different Class. Eight years later, it’s still one of the bravest and most extreme follow-up albums ever. After retreating for so long thereafter, Cocker now sounds like a guy who’s rediscovered the plot, and on his new import-only solo debut Jarvis, he’s rewritten it to fit the man he’s become.
Jarvis caps a flurry of retrospective releases that reaches back to a seemingly distant time not so long ago when boho weirdoes regularly ruled radio. Although Pulp never became more than a cult act in America, Cocker was England’s most idiosyncratic ’90s pop star—a post-punk misfit reborn as a Brit-popping thrift-shop dandy who impulsively took on Michael Jackson, consequently spent a night in jail, and woke up a national hero . . . and soon after, a disillusioned cokehead suffering from a nervous breakdown. The recent deluxe editions of Pulp’s His ‘n’ Hers, Different Class, and This Is Hardcore reveal that the more popular Pulp became, the more the band avoided adding to its albums—or even crafting past the demo stage—the songs that were most obviously potential hits. A fitting successor to Pulp’s class-clash anthem “Common People,” the Tony Blair–bashing “Cocaine Socialism”(included on the This Is Hardcore bonus disc) surely would’ve kept Pulp on top had it been properly released in 1997 rather than 2006.
The first sign that Cocker got his nerve back was last summer, when he launched his MySpace page with a new song to rival former glories, one that now plays during the end credits of the new Clive Owen film, Children of Men. A critique of social Darwinism as defined by riches and ruthlessness, “Running the World” mixes verses of wit and fury with a sing-along chorus that magnifies the rage of classic protest songs, but with an explicit awareness that protests these days will get you ignored or Dixie Chicked. “Cunts are still running the world,” he sings, over and over, as if no one’s listening.
This would be the centerpiece of lesser talents’ albums, but for Cocker it’s merely a hidden bonus track on a disc as thick with meaty tunes as its creator is famously thin. The hooks he downplayed in the wake of Different Class are back and booming on Jarvis
‘s extroverted first half, offering contrast to his sharpest quiet tracks. On the “Crimson & Clover”–sampling “Black Magic,” he matches the melodrama of that oldie’s grand descending chords, affirming that he’s still the greatest singer with an unspectacular voice since Morrissey, and just as fine a lyricist. Yes, that Arctic Monkeys guy does have a similar way with three-minute life slices, but Cocker reasserts his mastery throughout, and particularly on “Big Julie,” a song that captures the spirit of a shapely but restless protagonist who canvasses her neighborhood “trying to find something to like.” It’s sad but optimistic, and resolutely uncommon.