The first time it was appropriate to use the names Michael Jackson and Jarvis Cocker in the same sentence occurred in 1996, when the fey, gangly front man of the band Pulp hijacked the stage during an I-Am-Christ-Arisen display from the Crackpot King of Pop at a British awards show. That incident earned Mr. Cocker a night in the cells and the affection of a nation. But something must have rubbed off on Jarvis, because the new Pulp album, This Is Hardcore (Island), finds him homing in on the same emotional terrain that Mr. Jackson has, up to now, made entirely his own.
That would be dread.
Michael Jackson’s greatest hits-his HIStory -reek of it. As ebullient and vibrant as the performances powering the likes of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and “Bad” absolutely are, the singer is in a constant, convulsive state of panic, flinching, wincing and cowering away from the vaguest notions of intimacy or confrontation. But now Mr. Jackson does not flinch alone. The first of a torrent of wry couplets scattered throughout This Is Hardcore goes: “This is our ‘Music From a Bachelor’s Den’-the sound of loneliness turned up to 10.” That song, “The Fear,” is a claustrophobic panic attack whose narrator is endlessly assailed by unbidden epiphanies of his own solitude, his hollow existence and the conclusion of his own mortality. “The Fear” makes a promise that the rest of This Is Hardcore more than lives up to.
In Pulp’s last album, Different Class , Mr. Cocker’s persona was that of a snide, lustful, revenge-obsessed misfit who staunchly sided with the oppressed. That album made him, in Britain at least, a star, and this album is a horrified reaction to that stardom. In a classic don’t-wish-too-hard, you-might-get-what-you-want scenario, Jarvis Cocker, after 16 years of rejection and derision, finally became a man in tune with his times. Unfortunately, man is the operative word. When all the other leading luminaries of mid-90′s British pop hadn’t quite lost that flush of youth, the members of Pulp were all in their 30′s. Belatedly allowed access to the V.I.P. suite, Jarvis Cocker was too jaundiced, too knowing and experienced to exult in his success and indulge his appetites with the same enthusiasm and idiocy of his new chart colleagues.
Britain is afflicted with more than its fair share of guys who never grew up and out of their love of collecting color vinyl singles and collating chart positions. These guys run and read their own magazine, the phenomenally successful thirtysomething pop paper, Q . They have a novel affectionately satirizing their foibles: Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity . There’s even a popular BBC-TV game show called Never Mind the
Buzzcocks , wherein stand-up comics, actors and musicians of a certain age answer trivia
questions about Angelic
The thought that he is of this species revolts and horrifies Mr. Cocker. But how does a quirky pop star no longer disposed to indiscriminate snorting and screwing approach the looming prospect of middle age without coming off like the high school teacher ridiculed by his charges for attempting to appear au courant ? Mr. Cocker voices his dilemma on the spine-chilling “Help the Aged,” in which he wearily mutters, “Help the aged, one time they were just like you, drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue.”
Early middle age malaise is not the only source of Mr. Cocker’s epic funk. The array of willing flesh available to him since his ascendancy to domestic folk hero status has proved to be the source of more misery. The record’s title track baldly equates a routine coupling with a porn auteur choreographing a cum shot. On the epic “Seductive Barry,” Mr. Cocker participates in a mating dance with Neneh Cherry, each mouthing standard-issue R&B slow jam clichés-”Here in the night love takes control. Making me high, making me whole”-and making them seem like slurs. The singer is equally pitiless when he shifts the spotlight away from his own numerous shortcomings. On “A Little Soul,” which references Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Tracks of My Tears,” Mr. Cocker etches a portrait of a regretful abusive father sending out an S.O.S. to stop his son from following in his footsteps (“You look like me but please don’t turn out like me”).
Glam rockish where its predecessor glinted with a New Wave sheen, This Is Hardcore makes plain its debts to David Bowie, Roxy Music and Mott the Hoople. In fact, the latter outfit’s lead singer, Ian Hunter, himself a neuroses-filled late-in-life pop star, produced a precursor of “The Fear” two decades earlier in “Through the Looking Glass,” in which he moaned, “Why do you have to paint teeth green when they’re snowy, white and clean?”
If Mr. Cocker’s lyrical facility has evolved between albums, the group has taken something of a hit musically. This is due to the departure of longtime music director Russell Senior. His absence hasn’t resulted in the talent amputation of a Johnny Marr-less Morrissey, but it certainly means that, hookwise, Different Class lords its way over its successor, many of whose arrangements aim for atmospheric and end up turgid.
The only song that comes close to emulating the last album’s wily juxtaposition of brazen pop and waspish observations is the album closer, “Like a Friend.” Written for the Great Expectations soundtrack, it’s a you-only-hate-the-ones-you-love case study with Mr. Cocker intoning, “You are the cut that makes me hide my face/ You are the party that makes me feel my age.” The video for the song was recently submitted for approval on 12 Angry Viewers , MTV’s real-life Beavis and Butt-head , in which a panel of adolescent arbiters applauds or castigates new releases. The intercutting between the perfect commingling of Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke, and Jarvis’ derisive delivery, was already ironic. But the show deepened the wounds, simultaneously showing Jarvis’ comment on the movie and the 12 angry viewers’ grossed-out nausea at the sight of the singer and his famously geeky disco dance. For Mr. Cocker, there’s no growing old gracefully.