JARV IS…, “Beyond the Pale”

JARV IS…
Beyond the Pale
ROUGH TRADE
8/10 

Born long before Britpop, but only achieving success as a tartly sparkling sensation of that genre, Pulp and its dry-ice frontman Jarvis Cocker were the most wryly literate kitchen-sink dramatists of that post-disco pop moment. That Cocker—a solo act waiting to happen—followed that licentious lead with several slippery self-albums (Jarvis, Further Complications) of varying mood and artistic success showed that, perhaps, the smartly snarky, charming baritone needed the angst and tang of an actual band alongside him. 

With that, JARV IS… was born in 2017, with Serafina Steer (harp/keyboards), Emma Smith (violin), Andrew McKinney (bass), and Jason Buckle and Adam Betts (two drummers) focused on being a live act, and Cocker as its mad steering leader. As singles such as the wearily hilarious “Must I Evolve?” and the coolly cloying “House Music All Night Long” were released starting in 2019, a picture began emerging—sound and lyrical set-pieces not unlike the shock of hearing Leonard Cohen backed by chilly synths on “Various Positions” and “I’m Your Man,” yet with the fussy muscle of Roxy Music at its wonkiest, a live and vibrant art-rock tension developed purely by stage practice and interplay.

To that extent, Beyond the Pale feels tight, tense, yet free, with pasty Cocker as this debut album’s broodingly bittersweet yet (somewhat) gleeful centerpiece joining together with his ensemble for a ring of rare design.

From its cut-and-paste collage vibe of overdubbing live tapes with intricate, in-studio assemblage (Cocker has called it an “alive” album) to Cocker’s witty lyrical feel for desire and desperation (and, of course, his clipped blowsy vocal interpretation of such), JARV IS…’s songs, such as the grand closer “Children of the Echo” and the debonair yet frenetic “Sometimes I Am Pharaoh,” are minor key masterpieces.

As far as opening tracks go, the Cohen-esque “Save the Whale” and its throatily intoned first lines (“Take your foot off the gas / Because it’s all downhill from here / You are a manifestation of the universe / Your form is unimportant / But please, come over here”) is both charmingly disarming and inviting. Introductions to an album’s worth of theatrical mod pop with strangely alluring twists (such as “Swanky Modes”’s blend of wild jazz-bo piano and dub bass lines) and stewing lyrical éclat don’t come any better. And follow-ups to such a lead rarely come with such grace, goofiness, and full-blooded gusto. I laughed out loud at the weirdly humorous parts, and made a frowny face when things got sour and poignant.

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