he first song on Jarvis Cocker's solo album is "Don't Let Him Waste Your Time," originally written for Nancy Sinatra's 2004 album of commissions. It's a crunching, soaring Brill Building track, as catchy and witty as Cocker can make it without making it matter. But Sinatra's version is better—which doesn't mean that Jarvis Cocker is a bad performer but that he's an excellent songwriter, one who was asked to write a Nancy Sinatra song, did, and can't help but dilute it when he sings it himself. Gucci probably didn't look great with a handbag.
Cocker's skill at writing to order is more evident on Jarvis than on any of the former Pulp frontman's old albums. A Pulp song was a Pulp song—working-class angst, literate self-loathing, and luxuriously overstuffed verses all boxes on Cocker's lyrical checklist, still one of the best of its kind—and the songs on Jarvis, for the most part, aren't. The first, as explained, is a Nancy Sinatra song, and the second two are "Black Magic," a glory-of-rock stomp climaxing with an ancient "yeah yeah yeah," and "Heavy Weather," a minorly marvelous country song with a central metaphor so hackneyed and lyrics so old that artistic success has nothing to do with creation and everything to do with assembly. Neither song transcends any of the well-defined bounds of their genres; they're triumphs of cliché, the sound of an excellent craftsman filling his own orders.
Cocker's delivery is similarly classicist. The lyrical detail slathered across the average Pulp song was often so dense that Cocker was unable to sing half of it, resorting to a throaty whisper tellingly absent on the whole of Jarvis—none of the songs here have the slithery half-spoken wind-up of "I Spy," or the nasty, tortured lurch of "This Is Hardcore." And even when Cocker ceases crooning about dull domestic bliss ("Log on in the nighttime / Drink a half-bottle of wine / Buy a couple of records / Look at naked girls from time to time") to deliver an unembellished warning that "Given half the chance I know that I will kill again," it's a long way musically and lyrically from the roiling dissatisfaction of Different Class or the occasionally turgid darkness Cocker brandished on Freaks and This Is Hardcore. "I Will Kill Again" is an album highlight, perfectly deadpan and respectful of the rules that must be followed to make even a parodied piano ballad listenable, but it's the closest Cocker comes to his reputation.
Fortunately he was always better than his reputation. And on the bulk of Jarvis—whose very title is that of the Platonic First Solo Album—he's more interested in working gloriously through the tropes of that form than in revisiting seedy tales of the middle-class or the middle-aged. When he fills the album's second half with social commentary, Cocker tends to evoke the labored generalities of Bono or Sting: "From A to I" earnestly reminds the listener that his ancestors "had to fight just to survive / Now can't you do something with your life?", while "Tonite" advances the theory that "the future starts tonite.” For a while we're annoyed that someone of Cocker's demonstrated skill is suddenly lecturing us so limply, but both songs are arranged and performed so gracefully—the first with a shuffle of clean guitar and cricket-chorus keyboard, the second with a well-deployed set of "bom-bom-bom"s—that they're worth it. As with the opening trilogy, the lyrics don't seem much more than genre workouts, the words Cocker has to write to write the kind of song he's writing. In the end his We-are-the-World-isms aren't any more offensive than his my-baby's-gone-isms. By the time "Quantum Theory" rolls around and Cocker's whispering over an acoustic guitar about a parallel dimension in which his baby's back, it's barely cheese; it's just the kind of song this is, as hushed and heartfelt as it's supposed to be.
Almost none of the above applies to the last track, so different from the rest that Cocker hides it at the back of thirty minutes of silence following "Quantum Theory" (and, yes, we’re collectively tired of that technique). Internet-released single "Running the World" is a protest song of such unguarded bluntness it practically dares you to utter the word "facile," and Cocker's first-verse promise to put his point "in the fewest of words" is followed through with such verve that it’d ruin it as long as there's a chance, however small, that anyone reading this hasn't heard it. The song was already a great single; now it's a sponge, its eminently Pulpy lyrics and indestructible thesis wiping away whatever mild bad taste might be left by this album's blander moments. But, in this, it's a little superfluous: Jarvis is strong enough, smart enough, and at home enough with its ancient rock-star concerns and unembellished songcraft, for "Running the World" to remain a bonus track. This album doesn't need rescuing.