Before we get into who Jarvis Cocker is, we must first establish who Jarvis Cocker was.
As the frontman of Pulp, Jarvis Cocker was Britpop’s dirtiest, oldest man. He was its self-professed oddball, donning suits and huge glasses rather than Gallagher-endorsed parkas. He went far further with his social critique than Blur’s Damon Albarn ever dared. During the ’90s British rock heyday, Cocker not only seemed older and wiser, he actually was: Pulp formed in 1978. He was the closest thing Britpop had to an Oscar Wilde type: literary, bookish, dapper, cultured, coded as queer (certainly compared to his laddish counterparts), and capable of wielding a truly eviscerating wit.
That was Jarvis Cocker.
Pulp disbanded for good in 2002, trotting back out for the victory lap of a few reunion shows about a decade later. Cocker’s solo career appeared less as a career and more as a string of loosely related collaborations and interesting one-off projects. This most recent incarnation, Jarv Is, presumably falls into the latter category. The whole endeavor, in fact, is a ballsy move, seeing as he’s holding a two-night residency on the back of a solo project that hasn’t released a single.
Not that Jarvis Cocker can’t do that. Both nights sold out weeks in advance.
On night one, the crowd is what you would expect: firmly middle age, a smattering of British accents among the din, the requisite Morrissey T-shirt. Speaking of which, t-shirts jostle for space at the merch table against a book of Cocker’s lyrics and Richard Brautigan’s 1976 novel Sombrero Fallout, to which Cocker wrote the introduction.
Inside, it’s packed. The band walks out to a Crabtree remix of Philip Glass and Blondie’s version of “Heart of Glass,” playing along for a few measures before Cocker descends the stairs to the stage, holding a hand mirror out in front of his face.
This is Jarvis Cocker, the spectacle. The character, even. He’s made a career out of being the artsy weirdo, idiosyncratic yet oddly appealing. He’s in his trademark suit: It’s tan, with a bright red shirt and a gold chain swinging from his neck. This Cocker is what the people have been coming to see. The show is billed as ‘Jarv Is’, not as a feel-good romp through Pulp’s greatest hits. No one expects to hear “Common People” or “Disco 2000.” But since no one knows what ‘Jarv Is’ entails, the main draw becomes Cocker himself: outsider icon.
The beginning is understated. He builds set opener “Sometimes I Am Pharaoh” to some sort of climax, but doesn’t quite commit to the high kicks and thrashing about until the third song, an angrier, heavier song about needing a tragedy in order to cultivate a personality. This is Cocker as songwriter and lyricist, and he’s coming apart. The sound is still undeniably his, but his writing is looser, fiercer, jazzier, longer, louder. The performance follows suit: Cocker dances like his joints don’t really fit in their sockets, and it’s so entertaining that it’s almost a shame whenever he takes up his guitar.
In between songs, Cocker switches back himself as spectacle. It’s not just stage banter. It’s quotes from people born on this day and quips about Sputnik, building a utopia, and not being born in time to remember the release of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Fifty minutes in, he addresses his age — he’s 55, for the record — saying, “I’m of a certain age, OK? Just got to face it. I’m loving it.” But he also correctly uses the term “FOMO,” so he can’t be that old.
Cocker loves the audience, eagerly holding some version of a conversation with them. He holds a vote as to the correct way to pronounce Sarandon (yes, as in Susan): Sa-RAN-din beats Seran-din by a landslide
But while Cocker the spectacle is a self-aware force, Cocker the lyricist hasn’t lost his touch. Lines like “I can resist gentrification / I can’t resist temptation,” earn proper laughter from the audience. Cocker has always had a penchant for snappy one-liners: “I’m from the days of VHS and casual sex,” sticks out.
He relents to his legacy in the encore, returning for a deliriously wonderful and upbeat version of “His ‘n’ Hers” from the 1994 Pulp album of the same name. But Cocker the musician can’t hold back Cocker the spectacle, and he waits for a musical interlude to ask members in the audience what they fear most. When a woman answers, “Being alone,” he stands up straight and gestures to the crowd.
“We’re all afraid of being alone,” he says. “But just turn around and look. Please just turn and look. You’re not alone. You’re among all these people. It’s fine. In fact, it’s better than fine. It’s great.”
And everyone, at least for a single moment, cheers and worships at the church of Cocker the prophet.