Jarvis Cocker’s new ‘live project’ has released an album after all and it serves as an oddly prophetic tome with the layman philosophy that keeps Cocker close to our hearts throughout every iteration of his career.
I love the idea of a live-only band. It’s a tough sell though and a project that could probably only be successfully executed by someone well established. While live performance is the bread-winning activity for bands and musicians these days the recording side of the job is important if for no other reason than to serve as an experiential business card to come out to the show.
Part of the allure for a live-focussed band is that the songs can be given more licence to change and evolve with each performance as the audience expectation is lessened by the very fact that that is the only way they can experience the music. Releasing an album then, applies a layer of audience expectation. I think artists should be allowed to experiment with their songs as much as they wish. If you want to hear the record, listen to the record. That said, there is a catharsis to singing along to your favourite songs, and presumably playing songs to a crowd doing that, which should never be ignored completely. It’s a fine balance.
Respect then to Jarvis and his band for deciding to lay down the record. From what I have heard it is largely comprised of live takes from shows then taken into the studio for some tweaking. So what is presented here is an authentic snapshot of the project. Snapshot is a pertinent and key word here. I wanted to see them this summer anyway, having missed them last year – well that isn’t happening either so next year then – and I would expect the music to evolve yet further from what is presented here and that makes me want to see them even more.
House Music All Night Long has become something of an unofficial anthem for the year 2020. In fact written 2 or 3 years ago, Jarvis has said in interviews that he appreciates the new meaning of the song and that he can appreciate it the same way the fans do. I guess that is a beautiful realisation of the heart behind the project. Not only does the music change but the meaning of the songs can ebb and flow over time as well to the context in which they are being heard.
To the music then. Save the Whale, the third single ahead of the album release and provider of the album title, opens the record with its quiet and subtle instrumentation bare bones but interesting percussion is joined by beautiful strings played sharply at first but then extend out when the chorus comes in to create a beautiful soundscape. Cocker opens the record with the advice to “Take your foot off the gas because it’s all downhill from here”. Maybe indicative of the attitude and themes throughout the record’s lyrics but it is anything but a descriptor of the quality on offer here. Later on the call and response of “wrinkly world, smooth world” has an eerie logic to it under the current circumstances but was written in relation to childhood dreams where the fellow band members had similar experiences growing up.
Must I Evolve, the first single, follows and as a first impression it’s a bit nuts. Cocker is asking various existential questions to the repeated “yes yes yes yes” or “no no no no” answer from the backing vocals. The track is a one big crescendo across it’s six and a half minute run time. Using all sort of shifts in instrumentation and pacing to imbue in the listener multiple emotions as the journey continues. Those emotions are often a variant of unsettled but one still enjoys the experience.
On Am I Missing Something, more electronic elements are brought in to join the rest of the band but still used with the deftness of the other instrumentation so as not to detract or define the track too much. It finds a a really sultry groove, which pays dividends as it finds itself positioned between Must I Evolve and House Music All Night Long. In House Music there is a sense of rave-y anticipation throughout. Heavily electronic (by comparison to the other tracks here) and constrained almost like it is itself wanting to go out and have it large but is stuck in the house, much the same as its protagonist. It is certainly in contention for the end of year track lists.
Sometimes I Am Pharaoh has a sound of Bowie about it. Jarvis Cockers voice has similarities on occasions throughout the record, but here the musical inflections join him to create a track that one could easily see being done by Bowie himself. At around the half way mark the track lightens and sounds like it could develop and build into a rave. It doesn’t quite build in the way a newer artist or producer might have been tempted to take it but this is to the tracks benefit as the sound thickens and intensifies instead of going for the easy, cliché route and cheap pay-off it could have done.
Swanky Modes has a very similar sound style to Leaving Beirut by Roger Waters. The barely-sung story telling over minor key, low tempo, simple instrumentation. Here driven by a very simple drum pattern, a single note bass rhythm and piano providing accentuation. The subject matter is considerably less heavy than Waters’ similar track, in fact almost trivial by comparison, but no less sincere.
Finally, Children of the Echo has an almost Gorillaz quality to it, Cocker sounding quite similar to 2D in his falsetto of the opening lines but with far more tune and intonation than the cartoon character, and the music flitting about is reminiscent of select early material from Albarn and co. It sends you out feeling weirdly optimistic and refreshed.
Beyond the Pale only consists only 7 tracks while filling 40 minutes. It is a tight and solid listen that passes remarkably quickly. There is musical intrigue or lyrical curiosity with every bar. Jarvis Cocker’s lyrical style has only shifted to be slightly more enigmatic and poetic as he dances between the opaque to the incredibly direct and at times obscene. From the frontman of Pulp and writer of Ruling the World, we expect nothing less and here he is on fiery form.
I get the sense from this project that his prior statements that Pulp is finished is 100% true. This album captures the sound of a band having fun with each other, their abilities, creativity and the material at hand. It is a maturation in sound in a way from his prior projects. That is not to say there was anything wrong with the other projects, this is simply a different flavour and it is so full of life I just can’t see him going back. A lot of the music presented on Beyond the Pale deals in the depths. There is restraint and subtlety while going no where near minimalism. It is of a quality that just isn’t delivered by younger artists. This is where the earlier comparison to Bowie runs a little deeper. If you listen to Blackstar, it uses a lot of modern music styles, songwriting, and production techniques but utilises them in a way that only decades in the business of creating music can deliver. It is an absolute delight to see another artist that could easily be written off remaining so vitally relevant. In fact I’d go further as to say that less experienced artists should be looking to every element of this project for inspiration and guidance.
This is one of the better records you will hear this year. The production is top notch, it is musically creative and intricate in ways that do not detract from the song (looking at you Nadine Shah – more on that coming very soon), it tells stories that are real, universal and personal, and given the time it was written it has proven prophetic in places. Jarvis seems to have a knack for doing that. All of that said, it is definitely an album-listen rather than individual tracks in my view – with maybe the exception of House Music All Night Long. Each track absolutely holds its own and can be listened to independently but when taken all together in one sitting one arrives at the end in a better place than where they began and feeling satisfied. This is something that cannot be said for most albums these days as they gun for the radio hit as opposed to the musical experience and even then their hit rate is questionable. The live intent and origins of this record shine through in spades and give it a quality that will, by that virtue alone, completely elude most artists and their endeavours. I hope this is album one of many more to come
Highlights: House Music All Night Long, Must I Evolve (but really, every track, let’s be honest)